U turn if you want…

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My comments about the grades fiasco precipitated if not a torrent of correspondence, then certainly more than usual. Most disagreed with my position. Yet here we are, with the desired shift to centre-assessed grades, a.k.a. teacher predictions – and lo, we have the predicted wave of grade inflation, worse at G.C.S.E. than ‘A’ level. Sixth forms now face the prospect of larger numbers of students on courses, who have miraculously become more intelligent overnight than their predecessors. Or maybe they will just struggle with the courses more…

Meanwhile, universities face the problem of accommodating increased numbers of students, while trying to maintain Covid-related safety. There is no guarantee that all those students are suited to higher education, and they may have negative experiences as a result. But the profession has got its way: more indeed did get prizes. Just don’t forget that that includes the teachers.

Conversations in the past few days with colleagues of decades’ standing, in whose views I have much confidence, agreed that schools tend to err optimistically with grade predictions – except perhaps with students who have been difficult, which is hardly an objective assessment of achievement either. Teachers are only human; the trouble is that they are now solidly invested in claiming otherwise.

A cursory look at corporate law will show that a company’s prime responsibility is to its shareholders. Customers and employees are merely the mechanism by which dividends are created, and it is by no means guaranteed that all companies will look after their machinery well. This is why self-preservation becomes important. It is worth saying again: the real culprit here is the transactional nature of almost everything in British society, the weaknesses of which Covid has unwittingly exposed. It is also worth repeating that this is not an inevitable situation, but one created by forty years of successive government policy. It has restructured Health and Education, and pretty much everything else, along quasi-market lines while encouraging people to think of themselves as customers rather than citizens.

The difference is important: customers are primarily self-interested, whereas citizens are less so.  Customers have little long-term interest in a relationship; citizens more so. In that situation,  the most aggressive players nearly always win; there is no room for sentiment.

I think it was this that also underpinned my being roundly criticised by a group of parents on a local parent-teacher social media group some days ago – for having the temerity to suggest that they might consider accustoming their children to wearing masks in case the requirements change as the number of Covid infections rises again. For my attempt at considered professional support, I was told this was “none of my business”. This is a typical customer-type reaction: very ‘interested’ when there is something to gain, and not at all when there isn’t. (A startling spin-off of this encounter was the almost total lack of expressed concern for the well-being of the teachers. Again, why would you care about the bod who served your burger, once you’ve bought it?)

The problem with such vested interests is that they are both short-termist and potentially deceitful. Feigning interest is just another ploy in the marketplace ‘game’, as is disowning vested ones. And short-term interests nearly always win out over longer term ones, as instant gratification usually trumps the deferred type – ably assisted of course by hype.

What’s all this got to do with exam results? Well, to my mind, this is exactly how the education system now works. It explains why schools are so desperate to maintain statistics (their share price). It explains why universities now have huge marketing departments with glossy brochures, appealing as much to lifestyle as study – and then allocate places based on internal economics rather than academic potential.

It explains why exam results have become so important in the first place: they have become a currency in their own right. And as in any inflationary situation, what ‘backs’ that currency has become less important than the amount of it you hold in the first place. The fact that predicted grades are little more than educated guesses matters little when you can – nearly – treat them as hard currency in their own right. Even what students learn has now become just the fuel of that system, rather than anything that might be useful or interesting in its own right. Why else would so many teachers balk at even passing coverage of things that are “not on the syllabus”?

And it explains why teachers have taken to squealing so loudly where they perceive “injustices”. I’m not suggesting for a moment that don’t believe they are genuinely concerned for their students’ well-being, and it is not they who chose to operate in this system. But I think the collective professional mindset has now been so utterly saturated by this economised, transactional way of thinking that many can no longer see beyond it.

Advertising is a means of maximising your capital in such a system – which is why professional virtue-signalling is also so widespread. It results, too, in the frenzied claims about the “damage” done by lost classroom time – despite emerging evidence from the past months that  high-pressure classroom regimes may be doing even more harm to some. Whose interests are we really serving here?

Many of the concerns I expressed in my previous posts have rapidly become reality. We now have students in up-coming years complaining that they will be disadvantaged when competing with those whose grades have been inflated. We have over-supply of students to the higher phases. Those given grades this year will always know that (though no fault of their own) they were never properly earned and are therefore eternally questionable as a real validation of ability. Inflating the grades will only have made all this worse.

Teachers have become proxy consumers of exam results – why would they not, when their annual appraisal and perhaps pay rests so heavily on them? This perhaps explains the satisfaction being expressed at the U-turn, despite the many other problems that will result, and the routine decrying of other views on the matter.

The answer to the unfair competition problem? Bump up the results even higher next year. Just to make sure the situation isn’t “unfair”. Just give prizes to everyone – then they will all be happy. The unfettered market mentality never did take a long view.

If I have a criticism of the teaching profession, it is not for protecting its own interests: that is in effect what it has been increasingly forced to do, jettisoning its impartiality on the way. But denying it is disingenuous; arguing for solutions that are, at very least little better than the original problem is irresponsible. All the more so when self-interest may be a significant factor.

Those in the profession should be taking a much harder look at this situation and reflecting on where they stand. There are still plenty of teachers, I believe, who see the situation and its complexity for what it is: who are still motivated by genuine educational purposes, and who understand that real student progress requires a significant degree of teacher detachment. They would still have argued for the recent issue to be revisited – though from another perspective. But they are not the ones who tend to be heard.

This is why, in my opinion, it is essential to de-couple teachers’ professional interests from those of their pupils once again. While teachers’ own interests align so closely with those of their pupils, they will never retain adequate professional detachment. The system we have has forced this alignment – and it has caused the neglect of the other responsibility of teachers: to be gatekeepers to educational success, to police standards even when that requires hard decisions to be made and disappointing outcomes to be accepted (so long as they are rigorous). Not just to be unthinking cheerleaders for young people come what may: the profession also has bigger responsibilities. We have been forced to see the exam boards and regulators as competitors, even the Enemy – when the profession should actually be supporting their work in calibrating the system as accurately as possible – and ensuring that educational rather than transactional values prevail.

In the past, exam grades were norm referenced – in effect an algorithm. It meant that a constant percentage of the cohort received a certain grade each year, and the grade boundaries were shifted – marginally – to achieve this. While this had its own drawbacks, it did allow for annual variations in for example exam difficulty. G.C.S.E.s replaced this with criterion referencing: anyone who hit a specified level received the corresponding grade, with no cap on numbers. Superficially this might seem fairer, but – coupled with publishing the criteria criteria – it was a huge driver of teaching to the test, and the transactional scrum that has come from the resultant grade inflation. I am not surprised that governments have tried to rein this in, even though they were its instigator.

In a sense, education has always been a market: access always was a matter of supply and demand, as was the allocation of qualifications. It is simply a fact of life that previously-scarce resources become devalued if they are given free to all. But at least this was governed by academic principles, rather than the merely consumerist self-gratification that fuelled the recent furore. 

The only way to remove this is to get rid of the competitive aspect of the education system entirely. That is still the situation in some countries – but it comes with its own set of difficult choices, of course. When the crunch came, it was the highly-economised model of education was the one that was found most wanting.

Unjust deserts?

It is noticeable that today, even that scourge of right-wing governments, The Observer, accepts what I suggested in my earlier comments, that the parameters used in the exam-prediction algorithm made theoretical sense.

But it is also now clearer that something went desperately wrong with the way in which the algorithm worked or was applied. One would have thought that there had been adequate time for the Government to test this to destruction before the grades were announced – but it seems not. Such things are so far beyond my expertise that I cannot really comment further.

My comments were not intended to justify the outcome we have seen, which clearly needs further investigation and (probably) amendment. But I stand by my other observations, namely that a lot of the current outcry is not so much to do with the imperfection of the algorithm as the indignation that teachers were not “sufficiently listened to”. We need to rise above this: moral indignation – whether politically motivated or not – is neither the right nor the best approach.

The claims that teacher predicted grades should have been virtually the only criterion still do not hold water. As I pointed out, these grades are very often wrong; I have now seen a figure of 79% inaccuracy cited in The Observer. That does not surprise me: if the teaching profession is claiming that it is somehow immune to Optimism Bias, then it is certainly and miraculously the only part of the human species that is. That is not to suggest that there is deliberate distortion going on, but to deny that teachers are subject to such things is disingenuous, and in my view, this alone justified other factors being taken into consideration.

Even in these days of publicly-available marks schemes and exam hot-housing, school-reported results are only ever a less-than-impartial interpretation of what the exam board is looking for. I know from my own experience, that there were times when one used grades “elastically” for motivational or ‘stretch’ purposes, particularly near grade thresholds.

It is true that one does acquire a certain “gut feeling” for students’ abilities – but it is not reasonable to claim it is much more than that – nor that horse-trading does not go on between teachers over formal predictions. Nor it is untrue that knowledge of students’ target grades can distort the predictions teachers make. Being human, it can hardly be otherwise, no matter how hard we try – especially when we know how high the stakes can be. Equally, there are plenty of reasons for the grades that schools formally predict, for optimism bias to be a significant factor. Yet there is no acknowledgement of this fact.

The language that is used in education about such things also troubles me greatly. In particular, the use of the word “deserve”. From a moral perspective, Desert is a difficult matter. What one (supposedly) deserves at any given moment is deeply imponderable. I think it is dangerous for teachers to talk about what their pupils “deserve” – most of all when addressing the pupils themselves. And particularly so in the casual sense that is often used, implying that all young people deserve to succeed simply for being themselves, for being young, or for being students. What about young people who made no effort whatsoever? Do they “deserve” to be included in such blanket statements – because I’m pretty sure this is what such phrases imply? What about those who were disruptive in school or who even commit criminal acts? Do they deserve the same outcomes? Do people of unequal ability “deserve” to be given the same rewards, even though that would effectively devalue them for everyone? This is a word that teachers would wisely avoid.

Likewise, I have seen it said that these are “not the results we would want our young people to have received”. Well no, of course not. Superficially, we would all like prizes for all – but that is not to say it is a wise policy. And this again betrays a critical conflation of the desired outcomes with the actual ones, even accepting the deep flaws in what has happened. No exam ever delivered what all pupils and all teachers wanted. The answer is not to capitulate and just award teacher-predictions to all, as one Conservative M.P. has apparently suggested. The matter is more complex than that, even allowing for the difficulties caused during the last academic year.

As I said before, the aim should be to achieve maximum consistency with what has gone before – and what will come after. The “potential” that so many teachers seem to feel has not been recognised is not the same as actual exam performance, when many other factors have always come into play, that meant the results were not someone’s maximum potential. Like it or not, that has always been part of the exam “game” – and we have, as a nation, chosen to set disproportionate store by that game.

The trouble is, this is opening a Pandora’s Box: which limiting factors are admissible and which are not? What is an acceptable time threshold for mitigating circumstances? The fact that someone was feeling ill in the exam room? (Possibly). Issues like dyslexia? (often – but I am far from convinced this is never abused). Parental maltreatment as an infant? The fact that someone had broken up with their boy/girl friend the day before? Or that the weather was bad? Where does one stop? My own exam results were lower that what I think reasonably in hindsight reflected my “true potential” – but that deficit was largely due to poor choice of subjects and normal teenage turbulence and disaffection in the years before them. Why should that not be factored in too? Not everyone experiences them identically. Nor should we be swept away by claims that failure to compensate for these things inevitable “wrecks lives” That, given the blanket certainty with which it is cited, is just brinkmanship, more foot-stamping.

And this is before we consider those yet to come. If this year’s students are given an easy ride, how will it reflect on  coming years’ students who do not receive such favours? They will eventually all be operating in the same higher education and jobs markets. Why should one cohort be given an extra-easy ride? They didn’t “deserve” the disruption from Covid (at least no more than the entire human race might) – but following cohorts don’t deserve to be put at a disadvantage as a result, either.

Some have observed that my earlier comments were unsympathetic. They were not meant as such – but I see no reason why the correct response to the current situation is indulgence. There are enough bona fide reasons not to trust teacher predictions 100% – without that implying acceptance of the shambles we have now.

This is why we must decouple teachers’ interests from those of their pupils. I don’t think it does the teaching profession any favours to be as invested as it is in a partisan stance: in the quest for fairness, I don’t believe that positive bias is any more acceptable than negative.  This is perfectly compatible with wanting the best for your pupils because achieving it by misrepresentation is not the answer. I know for a fact that a few generations ago – when my parents taught – the witch-hunts that can follow from a teacher producing low exam results in a particular year did not happen. Again, I am not justifying repeated under-performance: this is where real individual professional responsibility needs to come in (though this, too, has been removed). But it needs to remove the reasons teachers have for partisan talking-up of specific student outcomes. Professionals need more detachment than that, for their students’ greater good, let alone their own.

The real problem is the simplistic, mechanical and consumerism-driven model of education that we now have. On the one hand, this has led people to believe that there is a simple causal relationship between what a teacher does with their students and the results those students achieve, as there is between a business and a customer. It is not so: there are many more factors involved than that, some which are neither predictable, nor in a teacher’s gift.

On the other, it has led people to cry foul when they don’t then receive what they feel they “deserve” as consumers of the education system – whether in the wider perspective it is justified or not. In education, the customer is not always right. Furthermore, the spectacle of teachers making such complaints is a significant factor in students and their parents following suit, whether well-considered or not.

I’m not suggesting there should not be reasonable grounds for appeal, as there have always been; indeed probably more so this year than usual. But it is also true that schools and teachers have increasingly used that procedure to “game” the system for furthering their own vested interests. I know of some schools where appealing grades has been pretty much an automatic annual policy in order to improve the statistics. This is not what I understand by professionalism.

This is not to imply that teachers are bent. The vast majority act in good faith – but whether it is wise or appropriate is a different matter. The recent spectacle has come close to an unedifying stamping of the feet. Professionalism should raise people above that, even though the partisanship has, I accept, been forced on teachers by the processes by which they are now appraised.

I repeat: this is why we desperately need to return teachers to a position where professional disinterest is possible. That is all I have been advocating in my posts.

Indulging in metaphorical foot-stamping, while repeatedly denying the validity of points such as those raised above, is disingenuous, and does the teaching profession no favours. Rather than reducing the matter to simplistic shouting, we should be providing a more rational, nuanced and disinterested narrative for the sake of all concerned. Where there is cause for concern, it should be advanced primarily through reasoned argument, rather than subjective matters of “fairness”. Teachers of course wish for the best for their students – but that is not the same as crying foul every time they don’t get what they want.

That this seems to be neither seen, nor perhaps possible, is said in sadness not anger.

Incidentally, I have seen no discussion, either, of the legal right of people to request decisions made by algorithm be reassessed by a human being. That ought to settle it.

Prizes for all

The fuss over this year’s exam results was probably inevitable. I suspect that those with political axes to grind spotted a sitting target a long time ago, and they were not about to give up the opportunity to horsewhip the government over it lightly.

I have no desire whatsoever to provide excuses for the shower that currently passes for the British government – but their biggest error in this case is probably yet to come – by performing a U-turn on the grades just issued.

There was never going to be an easy way of accurately replicating the outcomes of the exam hall. It seems to me that using an algorithm that considered:

• a school’s past performance profile
• students’ previous work
• as well as their teachers’ predictions

was about as good a mix as was likely to be possible. The fact that it has not delivered prizes for all should be seen as a strength not a weakness – because the normal exam system does not do that either. That is not intended to suggest that it was perfect, nor that there are no errors.

Many of those shouting loudest at the moment seem to be claiming that teacher predictions should have been pretty much the sole determinant of outcomes. Yet these are notoriously unreliable, as has been shown over many years. Mine often were. It may be true that teachers know their students’ potential better than anyone else – but that has never been the only factor affecting exam outcomes, and so if the aim is consistency with past years, it should not be the case now either. Potential is prone to wishful thinking.

It is not as though teachers or schools these days have no vested interest in talking-up their students’ exam results – both individual and institutional reputations rest on them. (Indeed, it was my insistence on reporting the truth about an apparently under-achieving class rather than the unsubstantiated grades that my superiors wanted to see, that contributed to my premature exit from the profession some years ago). I know enough about pressures on teachers elsewhere for this was not just to be an exception; therefore, I am wary about heavy reliance on teacher predictions, and I think the exam boards were wise to be so too. The pressures to talk grades up are just too great.

But there are bigger issues here.

There is an enduring belief in large parts of the teaching profession that the testing system should deliver ‘prizes for all’ – without any apparent recognition that doing so would simply devalue them, as all forms of inflation tend to do. Focusing on positive achievement is all very laudable – but success is meaningless without the possibility of failure.

That is part of life’s lesson that education really needs to deliver. Talk about what our “young people deserve” is often based very little on reasoning about what that really means (especially for people who have not lived long enough to “deserve” much at all) – and much more on indulgent wishful thinking by adults whose own supposed success depends vicariously upon it. Being charitable, people often arrive at this world-view from a genuine desire to rectify the legacy of social disadvantage – but dispensing extra-cheap prizes for all is not the way to do it.

Young people “deserve” to learn that we do not always win in life – and that they cannot expect all of life’s goodies to drop into their laps just for breathing fresh air. That, I suspect, is by far a more widespread – and more insidious – delusion than the opposite.

I should qualify that by saying that I do support trying to find the best in all people – but that is not the same as giving them all high academic qualifications. The fact that the system we have largely focuses on this at the expense of all else, is the problem here. But trying to use the exam system (and indeed education as a whole) primarily as a form of social engineering has always seemed to me a Pandora’s Box of the worst kind. Not least, it has led to the widespread conflation of “education” with the process and outcomes of prepping children to jump though a certain sort of performance hoop; their chances of success at that is what those having hysterics right now are really worried about, not the wider educational impact.

The only way to escape this minefield is to keep the examining system rigorously independent: assess all purely on their academic potential if you will, and do not be swayed by any other considerations. But also providing much better routes for the non-academic to excel in other fields.


The biggest problem of all, however, is the own goal that we will score by the way this issue is repeatedly covered in society more widely. The cries of indignation are also just another expression of the entitlement complex that causes people not to wear masks or socially distance if they think they don’t want to, people who habitually claim they have been hard done-by. The same complex that cries “it’s not fair” and stamps its foot every time it doesn’t get what it (thinks it) wants.

I am heartily sick of hearing that the exam issue – and indeed Covid 19 – has “destroyed” young people’s lives. There are certain educational problems that it has created, most importantly for those who were at the critical stage of basic skills such as literacy, for whose early-years development time does not wait. Likewise, the logistical problems for those about to enter a new phase of education are real – but they are just that – logistical, not intellectual. For almost everyone else, this has been a brief disruption that amounts to no more than a few percent of even young lives.

The most hysterical shouting has been about “wrecking young people’s mental health”. This from a society that, until it became a buzz-topic, cared almost not at all about that issue; this from a system that as I have seen at first hand, does plenty itself to damage young people’s mental health, through the pressure that comes from the anxiety-inducing hype that I mentioned earlier. I have seen far too many young people whose pleasure in learning was destroyed by the endless targets and pressure to “perform”; the latest is my talented niece. I have seen even high achievers rendered nervous wrecks by the stakes the felt they were playing for – all of which is the product of the system that our societal attitudes – not its young people – have created.

The peak of this stupidity is the hysteria with which the adult world – particularly the media, but many others too (including teachers) – rushes around discussing the matter. If there is one thing pretty much guaranteed to give young people anxiety, it is adults telling them just how “damaged” they now are, and just how “ruined” their lives will now be as a result of six months’ disruption.

If there is one thing that young people do not “deserve”, it is this: being the unwitting grist in the mill of the endlessly churning political-media-educational machine or becoming the focus of adult insecurities. It is why I instinctively felt that for many, a break from it might be at least as beneficial to their well-being as harmful. And we risk adding to the complex by insisting that they now need “intensive care” catch-up courses for all of that damage that must have been done.

I am certainly not advocating neglect of genuine mental health problems: I know more than well enough from personal experience just how destructive they can be. But I also know that a serious risk in mental illness is the power of auto-suggestion – of talking oneself unnecessarily into a damaged mindset, thereby creating problems where none might otherwise have existed.

And at the root of all of this is – yet again – the commoditised, zero-sum view of education that now rules this country. It just isn’t like that: I have seen plenty of young people who have made very good lives for themselves despite not having been academically successful, and I have seen plenty who have made little of having some of the best educational opportunities of all.

In 1982, I got on my bike and rode to school to collect my ‘A’ level results. I felt a mild pleasure when finding out that they were better than I had feared. Both the anticipation and the event had a small impact on what would now be called my ‘mental health’ – but it did not damage me for life. And the one thing that was completely absent was the societal hype about the whole thing. It is still like that in at least some other European countries, where education is still seen more holistically – and where they seem to be treating the same current problem much more calmly.

Yes, this year has been one like no other when it comes to the exam season. Those who never sat their exams are entitled to be feeling somewhat cheated by the lost opportunity to show their worth. But they would be feeling less not more cheated, were the whole of their educational experience not focussed to the point of obsession on what happens in the exam hall.

For most, there will be other exam seasons during their careers, and for those at the upper end – doing Finals – these exams mostly took place anyway. For others currently sitting on critical performance thresholds, it would seem reasonable to implement an enhanced appeals procedure – though that should still not mean caving in to “prizes for all”.

The biggest disservice we can do to young people at present is to hype the supposed “damage” that has been done, and to play down the benefits from wider activities of which plenty have availed themselves, let alone the benefits of a break from the grind of the formal educational conveyor belt. If we lead them to believe they are irreparably harmed, then they are likely to believe it; they will feel “aggrieved” if we tell them they should be.

At very least, any harm should be considered against the benefits for plenty from wider educational activities, more time spent with parents and families, the enhanced sense of community that has resulted, and simply a break from the unremitting conveyor belt that is the modern educational experience.

But that is not something about which many claiming to be standing up for the pupils – while hastening to make all the political or professional capital they can from the situation – will be probably be too concerned.

Are you certain?

Maybe it really is me. Who has the problem, that is.

I’m in the early stages of preparing for a third contract at the College – starting in September, back in the Politics department, this time for the whole year. To be clear, I’m not in the least unhappy at this prospect – nor at working again with a team of excellent people, with whom I sparked last year.

I need to decide on the approach for this new situation. Particularly as a fixed-contract part-timer, how far should one expect just to ‘slot in’ – and how far to bring one’s own way to doing things?

I’ve always believed that the point of being a ‘professional’ is that one is meant to use one’s own judgement to deliver the best outcomes of which one is personally capable. I choose my words carefully – because that may not mean precisely the same thing for everyone. But a truly reflective individual (as I have always tried to be) is surely best placed to know how to play to their own strengths, and in the case of education to deliver something truly bespoke to one’s pupils.

I’m not talking about going completely off-piste, because it is of course essential that benchmarks are in place and that there is some consistency to what is done. But the education world now seems so in hoc to the Exam Specification that the prospect of even minor deviations from it seem to induce cold sweats in many. Once again, this seems to be the default I will encounter – because it is, everywhere. (To be fair, the department seems more relaxed than many).

But yet again I am finding that my own thinking makes it difficult for me to stay within the strict and narrow confines of an “approved approach”. I am fully aware of the fact that it was my insistence on retaining what others saw as an unacceptable degree of professional freedom that got me into hot water at my previous school. Maybe I am just terrible at being a team player – but as regular readers of this blog will hopefully know, I am no gratuitous maverick. All I ever try to do is think widely about the process of education, and quite often that leads me to conclusions that others seem to find challenging. But what is important here? The obedience and compliance of one’s employees – or the fact that that they individually deliver excellent education? (While I might hesitate to call myself excellent, there is plenty to suggest that I do not fail – except in the eyes of those who can’t cope with diversity).

When faced with an exam specification, my instinct has never been simply to start at the beginning and work through to the end. I have always treated such documents as a guide, a route-marker that defines what is ultimately required. But I have always felt that there needs to be room for creative interpretation – be that reorganising material in order to create certain connections or emphases, perhaps because of certain resources or activities one knows work – or because one feels that one can enhance one’s pupils’ understanding by doing things slightly differently. Were syllabuses ever meant to be the straitjacket that they have become?

As far as I am concerned, there is a very fundamental issue at stake here, one from which I always begin: what is the point of doing what I am about to do with my students? Is it simply to acquire a piece of paper with some grades on it? Is it to shove the school further up the exam league tables? Or is it to give the student a meaningful insight into something that they previously knew little about? To give them a shot of wisdom that might, in some as yet unknowable way, allow them to go on and lead a richer life? Regrettably, I have increasingly felt that the real answer is to provide clear-cut outcomes for those who deliver the education, thus creating an efficient conveyor belt.

It is Unknowability that is the problem. For me, both personally and in terms of what I provide for others, my assumption is that education is about tackling uncertainty, not the opposite. It is the means by which we recognise the imponderable nature of existence and seek to approach it in what we hope will be a meaningful and effective way. It means – even as a teacher – being able to admit to one’s pupils that there are things that you don’t know; that perhaps no one knows; that in many fields, answers are rarely black-or-white. To do that, we first need to be comfortable with the situation ourselves.

And yet I remember the stark advice from early on my teacher training course:

Never Admit You Don’t Know Something.

(Given what a progressive course that was, this always struck me as obscenely dirigiste, and perhaps set me (or those who accepted it?) off on the wrong trajectory right from the outset).

The present question concerns how to begin a course in what will for many students be a new subject, in a way that makes what follows meaningful. We often neglect the contextualisation of what we do with students – which may be why some fail to see “the point” of it. The advice has been just to launch into the syllabus; personally, I am more inclined to spend one, perhaps two sessions, doing some reflection about the purpose of politics (beyond its being something you get an ‘A’ Level in), and exploring the students’ prior conceptions and biases. I have some activities that can do this in a structured and defined way. I am working on the assumption that many sixteen year-olds won’t actually have much idea about what Politics really is or does – certainly not anything like as much as highly-expert specialists who teach the course might assume when they “just dive in”.

The question is whether this would be time well spent. Conventional wisdom seems to be saying more loudly than ever that anything that doesn’t appear on an exam paper isn’t worth doing. I struggle to accept that. It still seems to me that the route to the most effective learning, whether for an exam or not, is sometimes oblique; that going around the houses in a way that may seem to cost time can in the long run pay handsome dividends of motivation and insight. All my prior experience suggests that this is so; what it needs is the freedom for the individual to judge and devise how to do it in an effective way.

I’m inclined to do it anyway, as I did on my previous sojourn in the college, where I believe the approach proved itself once again (the feedback from the students when my contract ended after a few months suggests so…). The problem is, it immediately risks putting me in conflict with those who believe in sticking rigidly to the syllabus – and they tend to be the ones in charge.

As I said, there is a very fundamental division here. In recent decades, the education world has moved decisively in the direction of wanting certainty: the certainty of being told by others exactly what to teach and how to teach it; the certainty that what the exam syllabus says about a subject is the truth, and nothing but. The certainty that regurgitating same in an exam hall is the mark of being a successful and educated person. The certainty that exam results are the only validation of that process needed. Certainty is what the corporate world (believes it) needs: it is what organisations largely try to function on; it has little to do with the hesitant process that is real thought, or the real nature of the world at large. Coming to believe otherwise is the major flaw in allowing the corporate tail to wag the intellectual dog.

Yet like all education, it does work – if only in its own terms. It has certainly shifted the national perception of the methods and purposes of education and conflated it with what in my mind is the very respectable but entirely different process of Training. Namely the up-skilling of people in specific, known fields – but without much in the way of philosophical underpinning.

It has profoundly affected the mind-set of generations of people in this country, whose lives seem to require all sorts of illusory certainties in order to function and make sense.

The trouble is, my own education seems to have done the opposite: to have made me sceptical of those who claim to offer certainty, of the notion that there is only ever one answer, and that the direct approach is always the best. That divergence has only been strengthened by my repeated experience of what happens to people’s minds and behaviours when you start giving them the opportunity for critical, as opposed to uncritical, thought.

That, to me, is real education: the ability to deal with the uncertainty of our time on this planet, not stick our heads in the sand of the opposite. As if more proof were needed, the past few years have dealt the population of this country massive doses of uncertainty – and they still do, daily.

We are not, collectively, dealing with them well. When our illusory certainties come up against the uncertainty of the real world, the latter tends to win.

Nationally, we have coped much less well than many other countries, including ones to whom we might have considered ourselves superior. How much has the diverse nature of education systems had to do with that? Do systems that encourage introspection and philosophising have an edge when it comes to societal behaviour?

It seems to me that the widespread public inability to separate sometimes-conflicting ‘facts’ from patent fiction (and tendency to grasp at the latter if it seems more comforting), to identify sensible priorities and to make reasonable decisions in very uncertain times – not to mention the anxiety that the inescapable need to do so has seemed to have induced in many – is all the proof needed that desirable cognitive outcomes of our current educational approach are grossly absent. We may be packing people full of qualifications – but it seems to me that we still have a massive deficit of basic cognitive ability. If universal public education is about anything, it is surely about addressing such issues.

There is no syllabus available for telling you how to survive a pandemic.

Half-baked

“If you want to see what education does to a country, just look at one that has none”.

It was perhaps the most convincing argument I ever encountered for doing the job that has occupied the bulk of my working life.

It also provided the perfect justification why someone like me, not a particularly outgoing person and with no children of his own, might go into that line of work. While I was perfectly prepared to support individuals when they needed my help, I never really subscribed to the view of my role as a somewhere between a pal and a life-coach, that has become the mainstream view in recent years. The job of the teacher is to be more impartial than that – a mentor, a critical friend, not a yes-person.

That is not to say that the individual is unimportant: a happy society has to be produced, as far as is possible, from happy individuals – but there is another descriptor that one might use too: Balanced. We all need a well-balanced society, not one that is simply pursuing individual self-realisation at all costs; all the more so when it is equated solely with career and income. This, I am less convinced we are achieving.

A balanced society is perhaps Wise: one that appreciates the perpetual, inescapable and uncomfortable compromise between our own interests and those of others around us. It appreciates, too, the subtle point that even self-interest is not simply a matter of who acquires the sharpest elbows and the largest bank account. It hopefully also sees that many of the things that make life worth living are not a product of ruthless ambition, nor the status that may result.

Therefore my own motives for teaching were more concerned with the role of education in creating a civilised society for all – including those without their own children – and for the transmission of the cultural and intellectual capital that is the very necessary inheritance of all. Looking after the individuals was just a (very important) part of the bigger picture.

I grew increasingly uncomfortable with the view (of not only, but seemingly including many teachers), that the purpose of education was to pass exams, thereby progressing to the next stage of this supposedly pre-ordained, homogenous process until wealth and influence eventually landed in your lap. It is probably no coincidence that such views were peddled most strongly by those within the profession who had themselves followed that trajectory…

My discomfort reached a peak when I was being actively being prevented from teaching in a way and using materials that I knew enhanced understanding, on the grounds that they would not specifically appear in the exam. To me, this was the pinnacle of the narrow-mindedness that I always believed education was meant to counter: a view so limited as to believe that we should only teach things, and in ways, that would supposedly enhance exam performance – at the expense of precisely the breadth of understanding and insight that exams are intended to sample. If this is so, then it is indeed true that the whole thing has been reduced to a pointless exercise in hoop-jumping.

I could not escape my unease that this outlook, which reduced the essential, life-enhancing experience of wonder at, and learning about the world to little more than box-ticking. I could not ignore the sense that is also self-defeating, because when the acquisition of something as indefinable as Wisdom is reduced to such, it does indeed become all but meaningless. Wisdom, by definition is not something that can be either acquired or exercised according to a pre-written formula – as many of the exponents of the hoop-jumping approach unknowingly demonstrated all too well.


 

These conflicts have been much in my mind again in recent times. First Brexit, and now Covid-19 have severely tested our resilience as a society, and revealed the strengths and weaknesses of different systems, approaches and mindsets around the world.

As everywhere, my own local community has been tested by this unexpected adversity. In the past weeks, people have been taking conspicuous care with social distancing, while a number of local support groups have sprung up, as one would hope. And yet it seems that a few weeks of this are as much as some people can support. There are growing numbers of people appearing in the streets; while our weekly market has done well from people shopping more locally, I find myself incredulous at the speed with which self-discipline seems to be breaking down.

It seems that now the initial shock of the situation has passed, people are increasingly cutting corners; that faced with the choice between immediate convenience and potentially fatal infection, more than I am comfortable with appear to choose the former. Perhaps they think they are invincible; I wonder how many know that we have had the virus here in this community of five thousand…

There are some here (as presumably in all societies) who seem to have a casual attitude to Risk, or who simply can’t be bothered to sustain previous efforts. This might not matter so much if the consequences of their decisions only affected themselves – but the cruel tragedy of this pandemic, is that careless behaviour is at least as likely to harm others as themselves.

I know that some of the local traders have noticed – and have not missed the irony, either, that many who are currently patronising them have never been seen before – and will probably never be seen again once ‘normal’ life resumes. Such is the superficial transience of some people’s behaviour – and, it seems, their ability to learn lasting lessons. It often seems to be the same people who show little awareness of others around them in the street, and who seem to think that social distancing means that everyone else needs to give way…


 

There as an inherent contradiction within the idea of education: by cultivating people’s resourcefulness and potential, one makes it more possible for those individuals to stand on their own feet; to make decisions about their own lives and interests that are freed from the overwhelmingly-communal concerns that still govern less educated societies, ones where community really is an insurance against adversity.

Strengthening people’s minds really does give them more autonomy – but there is no guarantee that the result will be used in an enlightened way. The process that we in Britain currently call ‘education’ taps into very strong instincts for self-advancement, even greed: its singular emphasis on personal fulfillment has downplayed the interconnectedness of us all, which the current situation has temporarily re-emphasised. It has led people to become self-focused to the extent that they fail even to consider the impact of their behaviour on others – even it seems when that behaviour can potentially cause death. Not all restraint has gone – but a virus does not negotiate; it does not make allowances for human weakness or stupidity. In fact, it exploits them.

The problem with education is this: done well, it does indeed lead to a more effective, more ‘free’ society – and one in which people might be expected to acquire more than a passing attachment to the currently-required behavioural changes that exist for everyone’s benefit. Where people are wise enough to have a sensible perspective about the situation; where they actively take considered and responsible decisions. Where lessons really are learned.

But done badly, all it does is exaggerate people’s sense of autonomy – empowerment without the necessary wisdom to appreciate the subtle limitations on that autonomy. It leads to a determination to have one’s own way no matter what the consequences; eventually it becomes so habitual that people cannot do otherwise. First Brexit and now the pandemic seem to be showing that for enough of the population to cause a problem, it is indeed such attitudes that now hold sway. No doubt the same people will be the first with the hysterics should there be another spike in infections.

This is what education as hoop-jumping achieves: giving people an exaggerated sense of their own importance, even invincibility – and a diminished sense of the many ways in which that is nothing more than an illusion. They may lose dependency – but they replace it with half-truths. Half-baked education is only concerned with what superficially seems to be the ‘right’ answer – not the imponderable dilemmas and uncertainties that a truly-wise perspective can see. And it fails to equip people to know how to change their minds.

This is where my misgivings came from – for as has been said before, a little education is a dangerous thing.

Why I think the education system is to blame for our pathetic politicians.

It seems to be a rare point of national consensus that our politicians are failing us, even if we disagree on how. It might seem very unfair to criticise people who put themselves forward for the thankless task of trying to keep everyone on-side in a disparate nation of sixty-plus million individuals, but my views on this have changed, and I suspect many other people’s have too.

In the past, I accepted the notion that those in charge generally had the best interests of the nation at heart, even when I profoundly disagreed with their chosen means of delivering them. I am no longer sure that that is the case: we seem to have a generation of politicians who are rather too torn between doing their democratic job, and preserving the considerable personal benefits that derive from doing that within the British political system; it should not be a dilemma. That interpretation may well be excessively charitable: much of the impasse over Brexit and all that has followed seems clearly driven by personal and party interests, rather than those of the nation. That is hardly news – commentators all across the nation are saying as much.

I tend to exclude from this the dilemma facing those MPs whose personal inclinations over Brexit are in conflict with the way their constituencies voted on the matter, though even here, it is very possible that the resultant paralysis has as much to do with self-interest as anything else. I also can’t resist mentioning that I have yet to hear of a pro-Brexit MP who is beating themselves up because they represent a pro-remain constituency…

Be all that as it may, it may seem excessively harsh to blame the situation on the poor, unsuspecting education system – yet this has not prevented many people from attributing much of the country’s predicament to the failure to educate people properly. As a former teacher, I am hesitant at accepting such sweeping accusations, and yet having thought about it more, I am afraid I conclude that education does have responsibility here, if not in the direct way that those critics perhaps think.

First, the bit where I disagree: Brexit and the resultant attitudes are not the result of a failure to teach compulsory European Studies. At school age, such subjects largely go over people’s heads; I taught the subject at ‘A’ Level, and even then it was hard to make it resonate with many students. (In the end, I took them to Strasbourg, and sat them in the Parliament for a day. After that, their attitudes had markedly changed – but we cannot do that for all children.) Steering national attitudes is a much more subtle, gradual and difficult thing than that, in any case – even assuming it is a legitimate thing to attempt.

No, the failure of education is more profound than that – and also, I believe less properly-understood. A constant battle in my teaching career was my advocacy of “learning for learning’s sake”, against a considerable and powerful majority who saw it in much more instrumental terms – a confected process by which children were made to jump hoops that eventually might result in their getting a decent job, which by no coincidence happened also to provide cheap childcare for their parents, while delivering good career outcomes for teachers and their schools. One almost got the impression that any real cognitive development that happened along the way was little more than a fortunate side-effect.

But learning for learning’s sake is not the ivory-tower ideal that is often portrayed. It is through learning without ulterior motive that one’s intellectual powers are best developed, free from the distractions of how they might need to be ‘useful’. It is the only way in which learning can be the truly impartial process that comes close to the real meaning of the word ‘academic’.

What is more, it is only through such a process that the really important aspect of education can be maximised, namely its residue. It is what Einstein meant when he said “Education is what is left when one has forgotten everything he learned in school”. The message remains right: the really important thing about education is not the cramming of facts, the learning of skills, nor even the certificates one gains or the income it eventually delivers – and certainly not the league-table position it delivers to the school – but the state of mind it creates.

It is this that the education system has increasingly neglected. Such abstracts were perceived as meaningless against the seemingly more tangible matters of exam results, employability, let alone school league tables. As education increasingly became little more than the training in hoop-jumping that such exigencies required, something of profound value was lost – to the point that we now have entire generations that not only lack such a perspective but don’t even know that they do. Finishing my school education in the early 1980s, I consider that I myself caught little more than the tail-end of it.

When education is shorn of its higher ideas, it does indeed become little more than training: it produces people who, while they may be highly skilled in specific fields, lack – sometimes to a worrying degree – a larger perspective on the world. They also often lack qualities like patience, impartiality or empathy. Everything is focused on self-realisation. The general population’s role in the current political emergency comes from its propensity for woolly, self-referential thinking, restricted knowledge, egocentric perspectives, impatience with diverse points of view and a failure to accept that it doesn’t know what it doesn’t know. Those who become teachers then often perpetuate their own experience of mechanical teaching simply because they themselves lack the nuances that those abstract qualities cultivate – and so the cycle continues.

Such qualities are, however, no less necessary now than they ever were; one might argue even more so as the purely manual aspects of life have continued to decline. Somewhere in the shared subconscious, I believe there is a vague awareness of this void – but it is not something that a short remedial action can alter: it is something cultivated by breathing the air of a healthy educational environment (and I mean that in the widest sense, to include the home and other environments) throughout one’s early development, and indeed indefinitely.

The present education system has attempted to address this issue by focusing on window-dressing. In my experience, a major part of school culture involved learning how to talk oneself up, no matter how justified it was or wasn’t. I witnessed many school assemblies where pupils were exhorted to see life as a “challenge”, a competition to “win”. I witnessed examples of this where pupils were encouraged to “work on their personal brand”, to polish their personal statement to the point where they reflected more what the recipients were deemed to want to hear than anything accurate about the author.

In other words, for several generations now have bought into the world of hype – and they have encouraged the people of this country to believe that glossy marketing is more important than any substance that might lie behind it. What’s more, the teachers didn’t just preach this to their pupils; in many cases it seemed to be how they ran their own careers. I was chided on more than one occasion for “failing to play the game” because I stuck to my academic ideals.

The root of this deception is of course that the primary aim in life is to get what you want from it, no matter how one does it. The truth is an acceptable casualty in this race, as are personal integrity and any more subtle qualities that are hard to demonstrate. Yet it is utterly the antithesis of an educated state of mind, which tends to be restrained, tolerant, enquiring – and modest.

It is not fair to blame this entirely on schools, because in a way they have only been reflecting changes in wider society driven by new media and such like. But it is arguably the case that had education not failed to equip people with better intellectual foundations in the first place, such superficial tendencies might not have gained the traction that they have. The real failure of schools and education is not in specific matters – but in their willingness to endorse such matters and exploit them, rather than making a stand in the name of a more profound integrity. It is this that has brought the nation to a position where very many within it are profoundly ignorant of civic responsibilities, or understanding of how civil society works – politics and constitution included – so busy have they been polishing their own personal brands.

If we have produced a nation in which individual self-realisation is the over-riding aim – and I believe that the majority of the nation now really does believe it believes this – then it is hardly surprising that our politicians behave in the same way. Their duty to the nation is little more than an inconvenience on one’s way to Power and a stellar career; seen in this light, the behaviour of many of them makes much more sense. Personal weakness, ignorance or incompetence no longer need be an impediment to reaching the top in politics, any more than in the many other fields where powerful people make bad decisions based on the hubristic imperative of their personal brands.

I still can’t forget the occasion when I walked in on a local politician whom I had briefed to talk to my students about the principles of democracy and parliamentary representation – and found him telling them instead about how amazing a career politics can be for the ambitious individual.

That we (collectively) get the politicians we deserve is probably true, though the reasons why are subtler than they seem.

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.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Festina lente

There are occasionally times when specific events give rise for a little educational optimism. The change of heart at OFSTED regarding the use of data in inspections is one such, which I have mentioned before.

It will, of course, take a long time to work through a system that has been obsessed with data for several decades. But for every point of optimism, there still seem to be several heading in utterly the wrong direction, that reveal modes of thought that one might have hoped would have been completely seen-through and rejected by now. All the more regrettably, they often seem to be coming from those in policy-making positions.

One such is the recent revival of proposals to cut degree courses to two years in a drive to make them more affordable. To be fair, the current proposal is intended to provide an option rather than a cover-all. But it is just another example of the extent to which educational policy remains utterly economy-driven. One might have hoped that, by now it would be widely accepted that (supposed) economic efficiency does not always deliver wider, often intangible life benefits – and given the nature of the degree ‘experience’ probably does not deliver very good value for money either. A better solution would be to cut or abolish tuition fees, so as to remove the financial pressures from the learning process.

If one sees a degree as little more than a passport to employment, then I suppose it does make sense to push people through and out into the workplace as quickly as possible. But that is utterly to miss the point of the process, and it is depressing to think that such policies very probably originate from those who went through it themselves. Does it reflect their own understanding of what they did?

What this outlook still fails to understand is that life – most of all a genuine life of the mind – is not a directly-commandable economic utility. Cognitive development cannot be hurried for the sake of simple economic efficiency. While the three-year degree is of course an arbitrary construct in its own right, the longer such courses last – within reason – the more chance there is that the individual undertaking it will ‘grow’ into the experience. That, after all, is one reason why higher qualifications take longer!

In my own case, it was only really in the final year of my degree that the thing started to fall into place, and with it the commitment that had simply not been there during the first two years, when there was so much else to do at university.

And that is the other ignored point: as well as being an intellectual experience, being at university is a time of major personal growth. This can only be even more the case given the relatively recent knowledge that the human brain is not fully mature until one’s mid-twenties. There is still a lot of learning and personal development to be done at that stage, and compressing the process only risks further devaluing the whole thing to begin with: a two-year degree will be over before it has hardly begun.

While schools are not directly concerned, of course, with the duration of pupils’ study, much of the same thinking has been prevalent in them for years. It has all been about quantity and speed (for which read quasi-economic efficiency), without any apparent appreciation that the real experience of learning can neither be hurried in this way, nor packaged and sold in such limited terms. One might have hoped that we would be much further down the road of seeing such economised myopia for what it is – there is plenty of evidence of its effects right across society. We need to accept that there are certain things in life that you just can’t hurry.

But perhaps the critical feature of such myopia is its propensity for being self-perpetuating.

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.