Still standing…

Some weeks ago, I was asked to stand in for an ‘A’ Level Politics teacher who was having an operation. It felt like a huge step, particularly as I had vowed I would not go back into teaching.

Two weeks – which felt like two months (in a good way) – further on…

The new chapter of my career in education is written: no longer is the ending that ignominious crash, but a successful (if brief) return to the classroom three years later. I apologise if this seems over-dramatic, but it is an important matter for someone who always took his profession seriously and with a degree of pride.

I suppose I should be less surprised at how easily I dropped back into the classroom routine – but I am no less delighted, having been given the opportunity to prove, if only to myself, that I am still an effective practitioner – and that the questions raised three years ago were as groundless as I believed.

Does mental illness change people permanently? Perhaps. I found the daily ‘cognitive load’ greater than it used to be – but that may equally be a simple lack of practice (and it certainly got easier). I was wary of the fact that I seem to have a somewhat shorter fuse these days – but thankfully the students were so docile that it was never an issue. I think I am also more inclined to optimism, having been in a position where I was simply unable to experience positive feelings about anything for months on end. And I think I am also more understanding of other people’s imperfections and weaknesses too.

Equally, an important practical point has been made – it is possible to get back into work and cope. Until now, this has felt like an impossibly huge step. Indeed, it felt strange this morning not to be going to work again. I previously felt that I would never go back to the world of education – but now that is much less certain.

Having watched the other staff dealing with the usual heavy marking and administrative load, I don’t think I want to go back full-time: there are too many other things I am now involved with, that I want to keep up. It is true that work robs us of the possibility to have wider lives.

But the chance to go back into the classroom and just teach has reminded me that I really do enjoy doing this, and I seem to get results. The positive reactions of the students (seen not least in several leaving cards after just two weeks with them) suggests I am not wrong about this. And yet I still hesitate on such matters: the legacy of years of working in a place where one’s competence was implicitly and perpetually called into doubt runs deep. There again, a (small) amount of professional self-doubt may not be a bad thing…

The question is how, if at all, it can be done on something approaching acceptable terms.

But most of all, it felt good to work in a place where the vibe is positive, and where my colleagues were friendly and supportive – and who clearly retain views, qualities and practices that have gone a good way to restoring my faith in the profession. Thank you all.

Stand Back!

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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.

School bullies

News just in from an education ‘source’ elsewhere in the country described a situation whereby a member of non-teaching professional support staff was scapegoated, her life gratuitously made hell by senior managers until she eventually left her post. This in a primary school of all places. Perhaps the fact that it took place in an academy chain is not irrelevant. My source is so appalled that she too is considering her position.

Why does this still happen? The education sector repeatedly and understandably majors on the good it seeks to do in society. It claims to be a vocation that is devoted to positive outcomes in life. It champions opportunity, social justice and condemns bullying. By virtue of having the loudest voice, management is often in the vanguard of such crowing.

It is utter hypocrisy.

Because despite the above, it still does not know how to lead by example. It still seems to think that ruining the life chances of its own employees is acceptable. There is still too large an element in school “leadership” (I use the word here with caution) that seems to think that children’s life chances are best furthered by being as beastly to the people who work in that sector as possible.

I experienced it myself, in the way a situation was gradually turned against me because my face no longer fitted. It was nothing to do with competence – as so often. I was by no means alone: there are far too many reported examples of professional victimisation – and similar experiences seem still to be happening elsewhere in the country.

There is absolutely no justification whatsoever for this kind of treatment – and in my opinion, people who behave like this towards others are not fit to be in the positions of power that they often hold. It is not a reasonable excuse to claim they need to cut ‘dead wood’ from the system, or take ‘hard decisions’ on behalf of the children. It is not really about that: it is raw professional politics, pure and simple.

Even if someone has committed the most heinous professional crime imaginable, there is, I would argue, still a case for fair and balanced treatment, the retaining of the moral high ground rather than a primitive urge for retribution.

It is very easy to be disillusioned with the profession these days. It seems that the zealots and ideologues still hold sway – and they are ferocious against those who demur. For all the high-minded ideals we are no further from the partisan, cowardly and frankly puerile in-fighting and squabbling that has characterised the profession for so long. So much for the kids fighting in schools – if only they could see some of the adults! I cannot forget the county-council personnel worker who told me she was “well shot” of managing schools – “because they are too often utter poison”.

Many of those who claim to have children’s interests at heart should start by practising the behaviour they preach – towards their colleagues. Otherwise they are no better than the school bullies in the playground.

The Joy of Confirmation Bias

I wish I had read The Black Swan sooner. It is an engaging if sometimes challenging read. Taleb is a somewhat unconventional writer and he does not always explain complex concepts with the layman in mind. (I was initially floundering on the use of fractals in probability calculations…) But its basic message is worth the effort, and confirmation bias alone sees to it that it is satisfying to read something that justifies one’s own prior thoughts!

I show below a table reproduced from the later stages of the book. In it Taleb summarises contrasts in ways which different paradigms approach uncertainty. A Black Swan is a high-impact, low-frequency event that nonetheless has a massive effect; for instance, Taleb claims that 50% of the value of American stocks has been added by just ten tumultuous days in the last 50 years; similarly, just one blockbuster can completely turn a publisher’s fortunes around. Getting lucky enough to ride such a wave can be transformative, as can the negative impact of unforeseen catastrophes.

Taleb.jpg

The salient point for teaching, I think, is that there are aspects of life where grand master-plans and scientific predictions simply do not wash. Taleb points out that the social sciences and human behaviour in general are amongst them. There is no point in organising such phenomena around the diktats of elegant theories, or statistical predictions: the range of possible human responses to educational acts is just too great to call, and it does not regress to the mean either – something which most models assume. It is the educational equivalent of the Butterfly Effect.

One might conceive of a small event in a pupil’s schooling, that unbeknown to the teacher ‘lights a bulb in the mind’, and eventually causes that pupil to become the next Bill Gates or Stephen Hawking. I wonder what effect size John Hattie would ascribe to that… But to a lesser extent, the same is true about the actual effects of any educational (or other) interaction; this is why trying to identify and then depend on known ‘outcomes’ is pointless. (One might also consider the effect on the ‘total career impact’  of a teacher, of the act that produces the next Einstein!).

When I was writing my own book, I felt slightly uneasy that I could not substantiate sufficiently my claim that educational interactions are ‘irreducible events whose outcomes are only known to those involved’. For all that it felt right, justifying it was more difficult. But here, at last, is something that I think comes close. If it is indeed true that some effects in this world are governed by a fractal model of probability rather than a Bell Curve, then it is entirely possible for the effects of a teacher on a pupil to be unknowable – an educational Black Swan.

This does not mean that extreme events will occur frequently, but equally it does mean that they are eminently possible, and that we should not seek to build theories without allowing for them. Likewise, for every pupil who ‘works hard and succeeds’, how many (often unseen) pupils work hard but don’t? Or don’t work hard, but still do? It’s a deeply misleading relationship to suggest to people.

But given that they are unknowable in both nature and occurrence, we cannot therefore build accurate models of our effect. Resorting to those we have on the grounds that they are better than nothing does not make them any more accurate.

Taleb suggests that the only sensible response to this is Sceptical Empiricism, in other words a mode of working that is deductive: it works from reality to concept, rather than the opposite, always remembering that the past is not a good predictor of the future. The chart summarises the differences between this approach and the more conventional one, which does indeed look more like the present-day character of some education systems.

I was delighted to note that Taleb describes this approach as being ‘sophisticated craft’ rather than ‘poor science’ – which is indeed exactly how I would characterise my view of teaching vis à vis the established one, and what I proposed in the conclusion of my own book. And as he says, it is better to be broadly right than precisely wrong.

Which is what the current models being used in education are.

Is there room for staff?

There was a thoughtful piece in The Guardian this week about the decline of the staffroom. One can easily see this issue as highly symbolic of the attitude of the education system to its key staff. I must admit I was not previously aware that legislation was enacted in England (only) in 2012 to remove the need for schools to provide any work or social space for teachers. One can only stand speechless at the utter short-sightedness such decisions.

The situation is more complex than it might seem. For example, the school where I passed the bulk of my career was very widely spread across its site: it had previously been two adjacent single-sex schools, which had merged in the early 1970s. It meant that facilities were relatively plentiful, but the distances involved made it difficult for the staff to congregate in one place regularly – particularly as the length of break and lunch times was cut back. Instead, team rooms were provided, and they were generally well-equipped and well used. However, as the emphasis shifted away from a central staffroom – and as the recent management seemed to lose interest in maintaining a cohesive staff body – the place inevitably fragmented.

From a situation where I knew everybody on the staff in my early years, we moved to one where I barely even recognised some colleagues, let alone knew their name or had spoken to them. I was not alone.

One can speculate on the reasons why school managements might take the decision to remove communal staff space – and as in the rather difficult situation described above, they are not inevitably insidious. As school roles hit the top of their cycle, the pressure on space inevitably grows. But it is still all too easy to suspect that the division of staff and the reduction of their ability to communicate with each other may prove to be an attractive side-effect (if nothing else) when seen from certain management perspectives.

Yet once again, the consequences of this approach may harm more than the teachers themselves – this is another example of what might seem a purely logical difficulty having real impacts that far more deeply damage the fabric and work of the school. The fact that such impacts are either not known or are under-estimated is another consequence of having bean-counters in control of places like schools.

Professional communication is made easier if one has at least the semblance of acquaintance with one’s colleagues; in later years I found myself collaborating with people who were basically complete strangers. In some cases, it was even necessary to spend time finding out who a particular individual was, and where they were to be found; the alternative of email, while useful, diminished the direct personal interaction which can be extremely useful when discussing pupil matters.

Furthermore, the opportunity for the informal sharing of good practice across the school was reduced, as inevitably was one’s sense of shared purpose with one’s colleagues.

But beyond all that one needs to ask what are the perceptions of teachers, both individually and as a body, in Westminster and more locally, to think they should not be given a personal space within a school. Perhaps more light is cast by the case mentioned in the article of the school where the staffroom had windows so that the pupils could see what was going on within. This speaks of the utterly misplaced priorities that see teachers as servants of the children. What does it ‘say’ that a school management should consider the children as having the right to see everything of the staff’s business – and that staff should not have anywhere on the premises where they can gain a little privacy when needed?

I would be extremely suspicious of accepting a job in a school that had no staffroom: for all the innocent ones, there are too many insidious reasons why this might be so. But once again, it is quite possible that this is another own-goal for the schools concerned too. It is a matter of basic principle that people do better work once their basic needs have been met; this includes the ability to be sociable, the ability to rest and have a break – and one might add the dignity afforded by privacy when it is needed. When these things are not met, the end result can surely only erode commitment and quality. And given this week’s government announcements about further intended measures to tackle over-work, one wonders whether thinking will be joined-up enough to address matters like this, which can only make the work-life balance, not to mention general well-being and morale, worse.

 

We need to discuss management openly – while dodging the bullets.

If one sticks one’s head above the parapet, one should expect to encounter some low-flying ordnance. Parts of The Great Exception do seem to be causing controversy – which is good.

I expected my critique of ‘Big Management’ not to go down well in some quarters, though most school managers will no doubt be far too thick-skinned to be riled by comments from the likes of me. In any case, I hope it is possible to separate the issue from the people. Over the years, I did encounter a few managers whose behaviour was truly despicable, but they were very much the minority, and I have many friends and former colleagues who are or were managers: this is not personal.

We need to ask this question – because there is no reason whatsoever why management should be any more virtuous or above reproach than the rest of the system. Indeed given its huge influence, it has the capacity to cause far more harm to education than the inadequacies of mere individual classroom teachers – and that is without considering the huge costs that big management imposes on a cash-strapped system.

The worst thing to do would be to dismiss criticism out of hand, which would rather prove the point about the risk of hubris.

I am more concerned with the system that is being operated than the people enacting it, most of whom have to operate within frameworks over which they no more have complete control than anyone else. I am confident that most people in such positions are genuinely acting in what they believe to be the best way. But that is not to say that either they – or the system – are always getting it right: outside pressures can result in very perverse behaviours, especially as people move further from the grass-roots classroom experience. Neither is it untrue that self-interest sometimes clouds their judgement. Yet it is worth re-stating that no-one is forced to take such posts, and I would not wish some of their dilemmas on anyone.

For all that education has come under intense scrutiny in recent years, nobody seems to have stopped and asked whether ‘big management’ is actually helping. It seems to be taken for granted that it does (even when that flies in the face of experience) and I do not get the impression that the alternative views presented by highly-experienced managers like Margaret Heffernan, Daniel Pink and John Kay are widely known (that is why they’re in the book…). One manager I persuaded to read Daniel Pink described his book as “a revelation”. I’m afraid to say that plenty of conversations I have had with managers over the years betrayed nothing so much as a certain tunnel vision.

It is not sufficient for management teams solely to self- or peer-appraise; this is not acceptable for classroom teachers, and neither is it reasonable to dismiss the comments from those lower down the ‘food chain’ on the grounds of incomplete insight. If that were the case, we would stop all ‘pupil voice’ exercises today.

It is undoubtedly true that the situation is not the same everywhere: while I focus on many of the generic pitfalls of the management process, this is not to imply that practice is universally bad. But I also know from direct experience that the actions of management in certain circumstances can be responsible for a great deal of difficulty, distress and over-work. Over the years, I have been variously told that I was “naive” to call for more compassion in the workplace, that management should be “bullish” and that “things would be a lot harsher if we worked in The City”. I was told it was “insubordinate” to question a particularly difficult manager. None of this is remotely helpful. I would hope that well-meaning managers would acknowledge this and be concerned about it: why would they be otherwise?

This issue needs to be discussed in the open: there is a crisis of recruitment and retention in the profession – and it is not true that it is solely caused by low pay or the behaviour of the children. ‘Management’ is responsible for creating the climate (and many of the pressures) in the educational workplace – and there is plenty to suggest that it is not always good. I have repeatedly seen this with my own eyes – and I know that it is not always taken seriously. What greater own-goal could the profession score?

If it is true that poor classroom teaching needs to be addressed without much compunction, then the same is surely so for poor management – and the ability of those in senior positions to close ranks and insulate themselves more from adverse situations should not prevent that. Hypocrisy is destructive – and if managers feel uncomfortable about being criticised, then perhaps it will remind them how regular teachers feel under similar situations, many of which are management-instigated. In fact, I would much prefer to see a more consensual, less confrontational climate all round.

My book is not mainly aimed at new teachers as one reviewer suggested: I will be only too pleased if senior managers read it: some at least need to.

But I also hope that the (necessary) coverage of these issues will not distract from the more positive sections on good practice later in the book. I take the view that all in education have largely been co-victims of outside pressures, and my intention was to offer a constructive view of a more realistic, sustainable and humane way forward.

Getting that right would be one of the surest ways to improve the sector for everyone.

Two-way Grit

The Headmaster of Gresham’s School, Douglas Robb, has hit the headlines with his criticism of a potential employee who had the temerity to ask a question along the lines of, “Why should I work for your school?” He criticised the sense of entitlement that he perceived in the interviewee’s attitude, and went on to criticise the ‘snowflake’ generation for its lack of grit.

I was initially tempted to agree with his views, and I am as certain as one can be that they were well-meant. I have certainly come across many people in my time who exhibited the outlook that he criticises.

But on second thoughts, it becomes clear that Mr. Robb may be suffering from a certain restriction of vision. I have no particular insight into the conditions of employment at Gresham’s, but I would suspect that they are demanding but fair – in which case, the comments are probably justified. One might have thought that the opportunity to work in a prestigious school would be sufficient additional enticement for a young professional.

But the situation is very different in the wider workplace. Mr. Robb suggests that young people should not flinch from taking first jobs in menial work, and this is probably equally fair enough; I did the same, working for a year as an ancillary in a large psycho-geriatric hospital. It put quite a lot of things into perspective for a young, recent graduate. But for those, increasingly including the highly educated, for whom such employment may be rather more than a temporary prospect, I suggest the matter is rather different: it seems perfectly reasonable to me for them to question the value of what they are contemplating.

The same is not completely unreasonable of teachers. In the current climate, where the demands of the job are as extreme as they are, and the rewards have barely shifted in a decade, then I think anyone entering the profession and meeting a potential employer is entitled to ask what the other half of the ‘deal’ is. I worked for a school that majored on how much its staff could do for it – yet it was, for most of the time remarkably reticent in terms of what it felt its obligations to its staff were in return. Those who have been following my recent experiences will appreciate the poignancy of that – and no, the pay-cheque is not sufficient reward for a high-functioning professional of whom great demands will be made.

When schools, as much as any other influence spend so much time encouraging young people to aim high, think critically and expect a lot, it is rather ‘rich’ for them suddenly to expect those same people, when they return as would-be teachers, to accept ‘put up, shut up and be grateful for what you get’ as an adequate response. One wonders whether senior leaders practise the same attitude when it comes to their own prospects.

The demands on teachers are great, and it seems entirely reasonable for a self-respecting young person to enquire what the other half of the deal is. For too long, educational culture has regarded it as a privilege to work as a teacher, to wear the hair shirt and sacrifice one’s life for the ‘calling’. But there are limits – and they are very close to being reached, as the recruitment and retention crisis shows. Particularly when those at the top are visibly taking an ever larger slice of the cake for themselves, and grass-roots level employment seems in contrast ever more insecure, it seems only a matter of prudence and self-respect to safeguard one’s own position on entering a contract. I would hope that Mr. Robb offers an attractive package to his staff – but there are plenty of school leaders out there who do not, and who seem to consider the way they treat their staff to be no more than an afterthought. It would be no bad thing if they were given more cause for reflection on this, and perhaps themselves showed more ‘grit’ when it came to looking after their staff, especially during difficult times.

A great deal in the exchange described by Mr. Robb depended on the subtleties of inflection and attitude, which the rest of us cannot know – but I increasingly wonder if his real objection is more to the apparent breach of the deference which schools – and in particular private ones – seem to expect from their staff almost as much as from their pupils. In which case, the problem is his: in an equal society, it is not reasonable to expect one’s employees to be any more beholden to their employer than the opposite. It is no more a teacher’s privilege to work for a school than it is for the school to have the teacher work for it.

Saliently, it was once observed, “If hard work is all it is cracked up to be, those at the top would have kept it all for themselves”. If people realise that they need to tread carefully, that is no bad thing.

Putting the Soul Back Part IV

Essex: the societal epitome of our time…

When it comes to the good life, expectations are everything. There are those in society whose expectations are that they should have access to what they deem to be the ‘best’; there are plenty of others who seem to believe – or are resigned to – the opposite about themselves. While access to ‘the best’ is often equated with money, that is by no means the whole story. In Essex, where I worked, much of the population did not want for cash. But the county nonetheless struggled to escape its benighted reputation – and it was its own, self-referential mistake to think that cash was the reason. The county is a fascinating and rather saddening example of ordinary British society today. What irrevocably blighted Essex in the nation’s awareness was not its lack of wealth – but its lack of taste (by which I mean its inability to access valued cultural treasures). Or rather, its conflation of the two.

Perhaps the most telling thing about many of the pupils I taught was that despite their often coming from very wealthy homes, they lacked much sense of conventional social confidence or awareness. I don’t mean pretentions (of which there were plenty), but even basic social courtesies and codes. In many cases, this derived from homes that were cash-rich but values (and parenting time) poor. This was a significant factor in the life-chances of those young people: the social self-limitation that they often expressed was far more powerful as a life-constraint than any lack of wealth (or intelligence). The most extreme expression was the number of individuals I encountered who possessed the raw ability to give them a good shot at Oxbridge entry – but who were too socially intimidated to apply to institutions which they felt would be “too posh for them”. A similar phenomenon manifested itself on those occasions when we took students to the theatre, classical music concerts, museums and major institutions or events: despite the plentiful, even excessive spending money in their pockets, they were often noticeably intimidated. These were people who had financial assets galore – but very few personal or cultural assets to match.

They knew it. And despite the reticence that appeared in formal situations, their more usual out-of-school response was a big fat, sneering Essex V-sign. They expressed their self-perceived inability to access higher social and cultural situations by actively revelling in the brash, crass proletarian culture of Essex – inverted snobbery, even when they should have been perfectly capable of doing otherwise. In doing so, they unknowing perpetuated precisely the kind of social prejudices that cause other segments of British society to turn up their noses – and ensure that they patronise entirely different places. Essex may not care about its reputation – but those children still demonstrated an emergent awareness that their inability to access wider social norms was going to disadvantage them in anything other than a financial sense.

I do not wish to appear an Establishment apologist; I am torn between sympathising (but disagreeing) with the reactionary instincts of those young people in the face of a socially discriminatory system, and my own distaste of their values and behaviours. The fact is, they nonetheless demeaned only themselves by self-defining as crude, uncultured and tasteless. They also excluded themselves from access to many of life’s more complex experiences, of precisely the type that offer the greatest opportunity for self-development. If we return for a moment to the analogy with wine: the inverted snob’s refusal to drink anything other than bargain-basement plonk ultimately achieves little beyond that person’s inability ever to learn to appreciate something more.

If it is true of wine, how much more so it is of just about every other aspect of cultural capital: the riches of literature, music, art, food, design, travel, deep human relationships and more? I accept that this list is partisan, but that is beside the point. The key thing is the complexity, and that delivers quality; it is also essential to look inward for fulfilment, to the kind of person one becomes, at least as much as to any outside player. Besides, I struggle to believe that there are many people for whom high rates of knife-crime, relationship break-down, sub-standard housing, unemployment or material deprivation are highly desirable; maybe there is a consensus after all…

The single most effective means of exclusion from the better side of life is self-censure. The opposite is also true – but it requires personal effort. Certainly, money plays a significant part in accessing better things – but money is not actually essential to their appreciation. Where wealth has been used to create social differentiation, one might easily argue that the best weapon with which to counter it is the genuine subscription to the same cultural standards so as to disarm the wealth argument. No amount of money can remove someone’s appreciation of, say, an orchestral symphony, even if a lack of it can prevent access to the best seats. No amount of money can buy it either, even if it can increase the desirable exposure to such things.