A Little Learning…

(postscript to The Best of all possible worlds).

The last few pages of conclusion in Hoggart’s book are worthy of further comment, now that I’ve read them.

His book was originally going to be titled The Abuses of Literacy – and I think that would have been more appropriate. In some ways, Hoggart is tilting at the old idea that “a little learning is a dangerous thing”, that by empowering the working classes with literacy and elementary education, they were being exposed to exploitation by forces to which they were previously immune, in the form of  junk commercialism.

In doing so, they lost much of the naive honesty of their basic but authentic way of life, and it occurred to me that this is epitomised by the traditional music that I find so appealing. What is important about it is precisely its honesty: for all its rough edges and lack of tutored skill, the fact shines through that it was produced by real people in real communities, unlike the passively-consumed commercialised pop music that replaced it, whose sole purpose was to make money. It is ironic that it is largely the educated classes to whom traditional music appeals today.

This is a very difficult point: should one provide people with education (and hence aspiration) that may ultimately damage them? The answer probably has to be yes, but it goes to show how little control it is possible to have over the ‘outcomes’ of the process. A more difficult question still is whether a materially advanced and (excessively?) comfortable society is preferable to a basic but more ‘honest’ one. I’m really not sure – especially as from an educational point of view, that complacency seems to be breeding a growing indifference to the many other less passive but more cerebral dimensions of life. Is a modern society that is materially rich but culturally bankrupt, whose only common standards are the lowest, really worth teaching for?

Hoggart claimed that commercialism needed to appeal to the lowest common denominator in order to sell enough copy to turn a profit. He argued the semi-educated working classes were particularly exposed to this – but one might consider that the subsequent development of a rampantly materialistic market-society has extended the same vulnerabilities to other groups too. These days it is not only the poorly-educated who fill their minds with pulp fiction, reality T.V. and other junk culture. Affluenza has tended to be the result – in some way a worse life, not a better.

One of Hoggart’s final points is that the true conflict in society is not between the educated and uneducated, but between the authentic and the inauthentic. In the time since he wrote, the superficial values of the commercial world have come to dominate our society to an extent not seen in our continental neighbours – and they have come perilously close to consuming our education sector in the process.

The real tragedy is perhaps that education, which might have stood up for more substantial values has, over the past few decades sold itself, first to the misguided progressive social engineers, and more recently to the demands and processes of the market economy.

The Best of all possible worlds

All nations tell stories about themselves: it is a way of creating a shared consciousness about their place in the world. Unsurprisingly nearly all of them paint the nation concerned as the most virtuous and blessed on the planet. They need not be encumbered by more sober appraisals of reality, and one might even observe that the more flattering the picture, the less so may be the reality – after all, those most in need of a good story are often those for whom reality is most wanting.

We British are no slouches when it comes to the national story. In fact we’ve been at it longer than many, since well before the appellation ‘Great’ was added to our name. And we still are – for what other purpose serves the current imperative to be teaching ‘British Values’ to our young, as if they were not the values of other civilised nations too?

The last time this issue arose, the best response I read was from the excellent Mark Steel in The Independent. Unfortunately, I can’t find it, but I can well imagine him talking a pot-shot at this latest incarnation: the current reality of the British Story includes the most polarised wealth of any nation in Europe, the longest working hours, some of the least secure employment, a political system increasingly unsuited to modern governance (which has repeatedly failed to be reformed) and a government that has periodically contemplated withdrawing from its people access to European Human Rights legislation that is apparently perfectly adequate for millions of others, even in countries supposedly much less satisfactory than our own.

I have recently been reading The Uses of Literacy by Richard Hoggart, a 1957 text appraising the ways in which working class life in Britain was changing in the post-war period. It became a classic of social analysis, and is well worth reading for anyone who has an interest in social affairs, whether from an educational perspective or otherwise.

In many ways, Hoggart’s observations remain very relevant today, and the book was reprinted in 2009. Hoggart’s description of the remants of northern working-class life provide much food for thought on the matter of social progress, particularly considering the priority that has been (and still is) accorded to that matter as a supposed aim of mass education.

The second half of the book is a polemic against the loss of a humble but authentic way of life under the assault of the commercial vested interests that were starting to seep into British society, principally from America. This was the beginning of the hollowing out of society that arguably continues today.

Hoggart acknowledges the material improvements that were coming to ‘ordinary people’ at the time, relieving the drudgery of daily life – and the increased educational opportunities being afforded as mass access to secondary schools did indeed lift some out their uneducated state. However, he bemoans the fact that this occurred hand-in-hand with an almost irresistible commercialisation of life that neutralised much of the potential cultural and intellectual gain by appealing to the mass populace’s instincts for the low-brow. In one fell swoop, liberation by mass education was defeated by the self-interest of base commerce. One can argue that this too has continued – even strengthened – to the present day.

Hoggart has much to say about the educational system (he was an academic from a working-class background). Even then, he perceived in the application of education (and commerce) to those with little aptitude for it, as much the destruction of the authentic working class as a force for social progress. He argued that it removed people from their roots without ever allowing them to settle comfortably in their new social milieu. This is the story of my own parents, whom I know took decades to feel comfortable in the middle class surroundings in which they found themselves by dint of having become grammar-school teachers.

As the book progresses, Hoggart becomes rather condescending, but what he says does still resonate:

“the over-importance of examinations, the piling-up of knowledge and received opinions…a technique of apparent learning, of the acquisition of facts rather than the handling and use of facts.”

“[the scholarship boy] learns how to receive a purely literate education, one of using only a small part of his personality and challenging only a limited area of his being.” He begins to see life as a ladder, as a permanent examination with some praise and some further exhortation at each stage…He rarely feels the reality of knowledge, of other men’s thoughts and imaginings, on his pulses; he rarely discovers an author for himself and on his own…”

Hoggart invokes Herbert Spencer, who in the 1900s spoke of education thus:

“The established systems of education, whatever their matter may be, are fundamentally vicious in their manner. They encourage submissive receptivity instead of independent activity.”

I found myself wondering what has changed. It is a significant point: acquiring the trappings of education is of little consequence if one has no idea what to do with the thing itself.

One can perhaps read in such sentiments the origins of the progressive movement of the 1970s, but despite this (and its many failings) I fear that the current system of education is reverting rapidly to the earlier model. For all that I support the philosophy and methods of traditional teaching, my aim is to develop in my pupils the capacity for rigorous independent thought, and thereby an ability to become one’s own person. I do not believe it exists simply to validate small-minded institutional conformity.

If we remove for a moment the man-made structures that surround education, there can remain only one real purpose: the enhancement of individual lives. Humans are born with large and active brains; learning is not elective – it is instinctive. The purpose of any education system should therefore be to harness this capacity to permit the individual to lead a fulfilled life during his or her time on this planet, and (ideally) to assist others in doing the same.

I found myself wondering whether we have made any progress at all in this since the 1950s. In many ways, that was a time of optimism, perhaps the only period in recent British history when there was genuine social mobility, from which my own parents benefitted. Material progress has of course been mind-boggling since then – but I wonder whether it has really had much effect other than the diminution of the loftier aspirations in people’s lives. But as the unsentimental Hoggart points out, there was a large sector of the population that was not in the least interested in furthering itself – and again the same can possibly be said today.

As the many incurious young people that I encounter would suggest, material abundance seems to have done little but dull any interest in higher aspirations. The commercial world whose emergence Hoggart was witnessing has since sated the vast majority of people’s desires, while simultaneously dumbing down the diet so as to placate them in a fog of materialist self-satisfaction. When life‘s reward comes from the next iPhone or a flat-screen T.V. why worry about anything more abstract? Or as one student said to me this week, in what way might aspiring to earn £5 million a year be seen as an unreasonable life-goal?

I find myself wondering whether it is really worth trying to impose educated values on those who seem to have little real desire for them, any more now than in the 1950’s. Maybe we would be better concentrating on those (of any ability) who do show interest and promise?

The post-war idealism is long-gone. I find it hard to feel positive about a national story that is increasingly built on consumption-derived conformity and a lack of critical thought. Most worryingly, while the masses are glued to their flat screens, I suspect we are witnessing the emergence of a new aristocracy – that of the executive classes, who are increasingly cornering the real power and wealth, even in supposedly socially-orientated fields such as health and education. Several stories encountered this week point to the fact that management is increasingly becoming an end in its own right. It scarcely matters whether it is a school, hospital, university or commercial company – or indeed an entire nation; what is important is that it be managed, that its operatives be controlled and aligned with the corporate mission-statement, that the self-promotion of the organisation is more important than the substance of what it delivers.

Management too often feeds itself at the expense of its host; it is becoming a parasite on the real business of organisations. The platitudes may flow from those in charge, but words are cheap, and I might feel more convinced by their sincerity if those issuing them showed less need to regard themselves as deserving greater perks and vastly larger incomes than their minions. I might have more confidence in the mission statements if they didn’t come at the expense of the work-life balance, pay levels and sometimes even health of those lower down. Let alone the sometimes-demeaning treatment of those who for whatever reason do not play the corporate game.

It is particularly regrettable that education, an activity whose authentic goal is the intellectual liberation of the individual, is being increasingly misappropriated to serve the corporate power-dreams of a few, who are looking more and more like a detached cadre of self-aggrandising  fixers than an integral part of cohesive learning communities.

So much for an education system that works in the interests society as a whole; the values it now promotes are to entice the next generation of this aristocracy to make it for themselves if they can. It rewards personal ambition, material recompense and the clinical exercise of power over anything closer to the humane founding principles of education.

And so much for a national story that still considers its values superior to much of the world. In the introduction to Hoggart’s book, the writer Lynsey Hanley says

“Without self-respect, [Hoggart] argues, you are open to … denigration and exploitation by those who see opportunities in human vulnerability.”

Yet it is just such a destruction of individual self-respect that the British national story is now facilitating through its abandonment of higher educational and intellectual ideals. I entered teaching with those higher ideals in mind and I deplore the way this new aristocracy is diverting my own working life too, to deliver its narrow, selfish corporate objectives.


Shall I leave now?

Our new(ish) Education Secretary seems to have ruffled many feathers with her recent comment that we should be able to judge the respective worth of academic subjects by the eventual earning power of the recipients. I was appalled at this, and a bit of me suspects that even her not-much-missed predecessor would never have come out with something quite this crass. If I were to let it bother me, I could be very indignant indeed that the person in charge of our education system sought to devalue my own achievement purely because it has led to only relatively moderate earnings. Perhaps she would rather I left teaching and became a banker?

Daisy Christodoulou posted an eloquent and elegant objection to this hyper-materialisation of education’s aims here, pointing out that the perception of education as an economic tool is relatively recent, and that the cultural, societal and even political applications of education predate it by a long way. She perceptively observed that education was seen to have a desirable purpose long before people became as wealth-obsessed as they arguably are today.

Whatever industrialists and politicians might think, the actual effect of education can only ever be personal. Whatever learning does to one’s brain is ultimately of no direct relevance to anyone other than the individual concerned; that is why education remains fundamentally a cultural attribute. While wider society might reasonably be interested in who can do what, and the individual, too, might seek wider validation of their efforts, that effect remains entirely cerebral. Trying to misdirect it for economic – or any other – specific purpose can only result in the devaluation of its wider benefits.

As Lynne Taylor-Gooby, the principal of The Royal School, Haslemere wrote in The Independent,

“…the well-stocked mind [is] a virtue in its own right and… to be curious creative and spiritually aware [are] good things”.

This is a sentiment that I endorse wholeheartedly, and it is a major reason why I get out of bed on dark winter mornings. It ought to be possible for politicians (and others) to accept this on its own terms as a key component of a good society. This is about giving whatever meaning to individual lives that their owners later seek, and if some apparently ‘educated’ people really are insufficiently reflective to appreciate this, one is forced to doubt whether they really are very educated after all.

Some individuals may indeed choose to deploy their intellect for the single-minded pursuit of material wealth, but that choice is still the product of individual reasoning. So long as it does not involve the exploitation of others, it is hard to object, though one might hope that wider reflection would lead to a more considered understanding of the limitations of such a life – and also galvanise the potentially-exploited to resist their guile.

Like all teachers, I want my pupils to “succeed” – and for all the semantic arguments over precisely what this means, I think it is still a noble sentiment. For children’s consumption, we probably don’t need to engage too much in the philosophy, but what concerns me is that success is now only defined in terms of hard cash – as Ms. Morgan effectively suggested last week.

At its most extreme, applying this philosophy to education risks accelerating something that already needs greater investigation – the possibility that schooling (not Education, note) is simply making it easier for those who can to pull ever further away from the rest of society. It’s not as though there’s no evidence that that is happening…

I most definitely went into education to help people realise their potential, and there is always going to be a tension between that and the (in)equality of the outcomes. But I did not go into it believing that the only, or even most important, indicator of that is their earning capacity. While competition can be healthy, it does not by any means suit everyone and can easily become an obsession in itself. The notion that education is about gratuitously beating the opposition (and amorally either  ‘playing the game’  or ‘gaming the play’ in order to do so) is alien to me – and yet it seems to be the principal premise behind the values I see being expressed in school every day.

My own objective could not be more different. The  aggregate benefit of education to society can only be achieved by the success of each individual’s educational experience on its own terms. I see my role as firstly the development of children’s intellect and secondly, the transmission of one particular field of knowledge. What they do with it in later life is their concern, though I hope it will contribute to both an individually fulfilled life and one that contributes to the wider wellbeing of society. Narrowing this remit to economic supremacism devalues many of the other attributes needed for both of the above.

Securing a comfortable material quality of life is not a reprehensible aim – but it is diminished if not set in a more widely sustainable social and psychological context. I have deep reservations about the worthy teaching of ‘life skills’ as it reduces the development of personal qualities to just another external fix. The best way to promote enlightened thinking and behaviour is to equip people with the perspective to think it through for themselves – and this comes through the long-term development of thoughtfulness. This is not about creating champions (financial or otherwise) but about the development of the general fabric of society and its everyday quality of life. It is not about grit, so much as a sense of realism and proportionate expectation, of balancing one’s own needs with those of others. It is about giving people the ability and dignity to make their own considered life-choices rather than foisting political or economic ones upon them. There is a far greater total benefit to be had from that, than the production of the occasional winner – and thousands of also-rans.

A successfully educated person is one who can bring that perspective to bear on any aspect of life that they need or choose. Many thoughtful people realise that a widely well-lived life may even require the deliberate rejection of highly materialistic values. Arguably, it is also those academic disciplines that have a less direct line to high earnings that do most to promote such socially-responsible views. Yet by Morgan’s criteria, these people and their education count for little.

Success in this context refers as much to the quality of one’s relationships, one’s participation in wider society, the fulfilling use of one’s time, and a belief in one’s ability actively to influence these things, as it does to the size of one’s tax bill.  Shall I leave now?

Selective thinking

For all that we are the heirs of an honourable profession that dates back to Ancient times, I sometimes wonder whether we have really advanced very much at all. In fact, the modern profession of teaching often feels less mature than its ancestor might have, though to be fair, debate over the purpose and practice of education is hardly new.

But one might have hoped that an acceptance of the inevitable plurality of belief would be something we could have reached by now – in effect the conclusion that we will never reach a ‘conclusive conclusion’, at least in matters of human affairs where there probably is no such thing as an absolute answer.

In recent weeks, I have experienced several ways in which the current education system, far from tolerating diversity, seems actively hell-bent on eliminating it at least from within its own ranks. The irony is, of course, that we generally continue to preach tolerant ideals to our pupils while widely failing to get anywhere near them in our own professional discourse.

The case in question is a meeting I attended this week whose subject was the Growth Mindset. Not surprisingly, the supposed limitations of a fixed mindset were also examined, and during this, the issue of selective education came up, because of the fixed mindset it supposedly represents. It was taken as given that there was unanimity in the audience about the undesirability of selection, and I know for a fact that this caused genuine indignation for several who hold well-considered views in favour of selection.  And there are those of us who went through grammar schools ourselves, for whom such right-think comes close to invalidating our own education.

I am not intending to mount a defence of selection per se here, because my own views are genuinely ambivalent. But I do know that dismissing a view simply because it is not popular is unjustified, and that doing so amounts to ignorance of the fact that education can never be anything other than a matter of social and intellectual judgement. The claim of any one side to hold absolute virtue is both unrealistic and a betrayal of the considered, intelligent thought that we supposedly espouse.

In several recent encounters, the defining experience has been the reductivist nature of the argument, whereby all views and facts except those that supported the desired conclusion were either ignored or dismissed, no matter how relevant they might have been to reaching a more sophisticated, considered conclusion. It is the repeated and widespread tendency of the education sector to do just this that is why I suggest it is still far from being a mature profession.

By means of example, here are a few points from the selection debate that seem salient to the matter, but which to me seem to receive little coverage thanks to the blanket-bombing of the selection-is-bad contingent.

  1. Selective schools are not all the same. There is a huge difference between the ‘high-church’ ones that look and feel like wannabe private schools, the more mundane small-town grammars such as was my own experience, and the complacent one I once visited that was trying to do a good imitation of Summerhill. I suspect that many of those who are opposed to grammar schools have never been in one, and are blind to the differences between them.
  2. The social context of selective schools varies as much as for any other. The notion that they are packed with pre-tutored middle-class kids may be true in some cases, but it was most certainly not the case in the experience of both of my parents. They attended grammar schools in resolutely working-class parts of the country, where there was little middle-class to do the packing. In those cases, grammar schools provided a route away from the limited opportunities of small-town mining communities for those with academic ability – some of whom went on to be eminent practitioners in a range of fields. If that is not a story of improved opportunity, then I don’t know what is. (My own experience a generation later was somewhere in between, with a clear middle class, but plenty from other backgrounds).
  3. The removal of grammar schools may actually widen the divide.  Despite their principles and amid great family scrimping, my parents sent my sister, who post-dated comprehensive reorganisation, to the local small independent secondary rather than the sink comprehensive to which she had been allocated. She eventually went to Oxford. How many others did – and do – the same?
  4. There is a difference between the act of selection on educational grounds and the process whereby it is effected. Even many in grammar schools accepted that the Eleven-Plus was flawed, but it is not logical to dismiss the whole idea of selection as a result. There are other criteria and other mechanisms by which selection can operate, as I have seen in Switzerland. The opportunities for hard-workers to access academic schools at various points can be created, and I have met numerous Swiss pupils of various ages who have worked hard and achieved that transition. Likewise, poor performers in academic schools can be transferred out if they do not earn their keep.
  5. We need to accept that the whole issue in the U.K. seems irrevocably connected with class advantage and ‘opportunity’. While we cannot and should not ignore this, it is a different issue from educational selection per se. The reason the practice is less contentious in Switzerland, and I think, Germany, is that access to academic schools simply does not come with the social connotations. It is seen simply as a matter of individual ability and/or aptitude.
  6. Talking of aptitude, we could perhaps envisage a situation where pupils could opt for schools depending on their inclination rather than a crude test of ‘ability’. This, after all was roughly the intention of the 1944 Education Act, whereby the tripartite system would cater for different aptitudes. It failed for lack of complete implementation and an inability to escape those self-same social snobberies. In the mining town where my mother grew up, there was a very successful and popular technical school. It worked. There is a lot to commend a system that allows people to opt for different types of education according to their values and priorities rather than crude ability. In this way, bright-but-lazy students might not block access for keen but less able ones.
  7. Even in current times, we seem to have little difficulty with the notion of specialist education for talented sports-people or those of theatrical inclinations. We also venerate those who supposedly have exceptional talent. We even have some tolerance of those whom the system permits to self-select on account of their wealth – and even the fact that this is buying them access to better schools. And yet, we refuse to allow those of exceptional intellectual ability to enter institutions where this can be nurtured. Because for all the claims to the contrary, I am afraid that I have yet to encounter a comprehensive school that has managed to cultivate the same general atmosphere of quiet studiousness that my own modest, small-town grammar managed.
  8. There is the difficulty of potential division within the teaching profession. I suspect that this is a bigger issue than many will admit. Again, in the past it came down to class-ridden perceptions of the social superiority of grammar school teachers. But it is also true that the grammar school teachers of my experience did have a different mindset. Most importantly (and allowing for the different era) they had a different view of learning from the current norm – it was not a matter of competitiveness but more a matter of individual discovery. I am not convinced that those who promote the winner-takes-all, maximalist view of education understand the real nature of the beast, let alone the needs of those of high ability. High achievement does not need to be a competition, especially not an economic one. What is needed here is an acceptance of the equal validity of all types of education, a horses-for-courses view if you will, and again this seems to prevail on the continent. Given the enduring class-envy in British society, I am not holding my breath.

In the above, I am not setting out a one-sided argument in favour of selective education; as I said I am genuinely ambivalent. Crucially, I respect those who disagree with the above, including it has to be said some colleagues who themselves attended grammar schools: the matter is simply not cut-and-dried. But there are genuinely important factors that simply never get a hearing and as a result, the debate is flawed. The above list simply offers some of them.

While we have an incumbent clique that insists on imposing pseudo-consensus, claiming its right-think has a monopoly on truth and virtue, thereby preventing an open debate on such issues based on educational rather than socio-political merit, we will be none the closer to becoming the inclusive, mature profession we need to be. When I entered teaching, I hoped for better.

Beyond the cuckoo-clock

“In Switzerland they had brotherly love – they had 500 years of democracy and peace, and what did that produce? The cuckoo clock.”  Orson Welles (Harry Lime) in ‘The Third Man’.

I think this is going to be difficult. I am going to try to pick out a few impressions I have gained from my times in Switzerland, while attempting to present an accurate and reasonably impartial account. I’m pretty sure Orson Welles was wrong on two counts: Swiss history is rather more turbulent than that, as might be expected from a small, landlocked nation at the cross-roads of Europe – and I think it has produced rather more than a twee clock (which in any case is Bavarian…)

I’m not going to pretend that the following is scientific; it is simply the residue of my personal effort to understand another nation over a period of a couple of decades. One never even fully knows at what ‘position’ one enters that society: as a guest of grammar school teachers, some of whom are also university academics – I suspect it is different from that of the average teacher in the U.K. But I have ranged quite widely, from inside views of some of the international organisations that have settled in Switzerland, to the humdrum back-streets of the cities; I have taken the trams and post-buses and local trains; eaten at swanky lakeside restaurants on Lake Geneva – and mountain bothies near the snow-line. I have been in numerous people’s homes, a guest at parties, have soaked with the locals in tourist-unknown thermal baths, and celebrated the National Day in both large towns and small villages well off the tourist track; I have loitered in out-of-town commercial centres and pavement cafes long enough to watch what people are doing and how the place seems to work…

There is much else that I could mention, but I have tried to highlight aspects of the country that might be of significance from an educational point of view, in the widest sense of ‘what it’s all for’. These are the things that seem to contribute to the higher quality of life that I admire about the country; it’s noticeable that they are not all concerned with the country’s renowned material wealth.

I have tried to remain reasonably objective, and leave the reader to form what conclusions they will.

1. Principle Number One: Switzerland as a single entity doesn’t exist: as a federation, much power is devolved to canton (province) level, this even extending to income-tax rates.  This does however create some strong internal tensions, for example between cantons with more and less favourable tax regimes. There is no national newspaper or T.V station – nor even a single national educational system, that also being locally determined. This makes it difficult to generalise about the country – the more so the better you know it.

2. Switzerland remains a locally-minded society. Despite the global success of its companies and the high-profile branding of its national identity, many Swiss people seem firmly attached to their region of birth. This is reinforced by the language differences – not only between French, German and Italian, but between the many dialects. People are more likely to attend local universities and live in the same canton all their lives than is the equivalent experience in Britain. Tax is even paid directly at the canton and commune (parish) scale, which in turn entitles residents to a share in local services and produce, and more generally, means that residents retain a much greater control of their own communal affairs than is the case in the U.K., where local government has been progressively eroded. A disadvantage of this can be a degree of sometimes quite indignant parochialism, as seen in the recent immigration debate.

3. This localism seems to have preserved a much greater sense of social cohesion than in our increasingly atomised society in the U.K., despite the same global and technological forces being at work. Walking round even a relatively large city like Basel, it is noticeable how many people my friend is able to point out with whom he has some social, cultural or professional connection. There seems a much stronger sense of civic pride and social obligation; social relationships seem to be taken more seriously and are less transient than in the U.K. These bonds seem deep, and are more likely to involve arranged social events such as shared trips, meals and other functions. It can all appear somewhat formal, but that doesn’t seem to diminish the sincerity. To British eyes, the Swiss are resolutely understated, and unlikely to make demonstrative shows of friendship, but once made, one can generally be certain of the sincerity.

There are clearly very great levels of wealth in Switzerland, most notably around Zurich – but for a strongly-capitalist nation, the everyday Swiss are surprisingly egalitarian. The divide between the rich and rest seems narrower than in the U.K., though I suppose it may just be more discrete. Certainly, there seems to be less evidence of public figures buying themselves exclusivity, while on the other hand, visiting the home of some recent Serbian immigrants, I noted the living conditions (if representative) while somewhat dated, were far from the deprivation still found in parts of British cities – and were certainly still well-planned and built.

4. Public life in general seems to be in much better health than in the U.K. The referendum structure leads to more participation in decision-making, with documents being published several times years detailing the issues for forthcoming votes. There seems to be a noticeably higher level of cultural activity – including high culture – in which people participate. One sees posters everywhere; I suspect it is partly the devolved nature of the country that ensures that high-quality art and music are available in more than just a few large cities. Local activities widely seem to be of a high standard. Despite its modernity, Switzerland also retains a respect for the country’s traditions, such as the various seasonal fairs and the Fasnacht carnivals of February, which retain an almost medieval system of lodges, the cultural and social activities of which enlist trans-generational loyalty on an ongoing basis. Traditional academic disciplines and achievement seem to retain a respect and rigour not widely seen in the U.K. – but there is also an unselfconscious acceptance that trade is important too: vocational training is not seen as second-class.


Not quite your average Swiss… (Basler Fasnacht)

5. The infrastructure works. The rail system is legendary, of course – but the road network is equally comprehensive, high quality, and designed to maximise efficiency (greater use of flyovers etc.). Consequently, the driving can be surprisingly ‘unrestrained’… Just as important is the planning that goes into making the system work for the convenience of the whole population, not just an elite that is able to pay for exclusive access. It seems clear from the way that new projects are planned and promoted – often at visionary scale – that they are seen as the entitlement of the whole population. There is no stigma attached to public transport – one sees people of all sorts using the trams and buses (all of which are scrupulously clean and punctual, if not cheap) and car use is significantly lower, at least in larger centres, than it is in the U.K.

Also noticeable is the large amount of manufacturing that still goes on – not often heavy industry, mostly light manufacturing of high-quality, high-precision goods. There are many modern, clean and efficient business units in most urban areas, and not infrequently in rural ones too.

There is more provision for plurality – for example by the creation of a wide network of off-road cycle paths, and the universal signposting of national footpaths: it is not assumed that everybody wants to function in the same way as an increasingly herd-like British mentality seems to do. The corollary of this civic vision is a less paternalistic tone than sometimes occurs in Britain: it seems very clear that the rights of the autonomous citizen also extend to a high degree of responsibility and self reliance.

The sense of equalising opportunity extends nation-wide: unlike in the U.K., greater investment seems to go into remote areas (of which there are many) in recognition of their greater handicaps. The quality of works in even the remotest mountain communities is frequently no less than excellent by U.K. standards. (In Britain, the contrast in provision in particular between London and the further regions is reaching the levels of a scandal – recent figures suggest annual per capita public investment in London of over £2700 – and of just £5 in the North-East). This does not mean that everything is up-to-date; when the Swiss build from new they build ultra-modern – but because quality tends to be so high, things last, and it is not unusual to find artefacts and facilities many decades old: things tend not to be replaced until they wear out, not just for the sake of conspicuous fashionability. Switzerland retains much medieval architecture (there was almost no destruction in WWII) and the vast majority of it seems to be extremely well maintained.

6. The environment in the widest sense, is very important. This extends from the high quality of residential properties and neighbourhoods, through the generally well-maintained urban fabric to an awareness of green issues. While there has been a degree of coercion to achieve it (for example, fines for people who fail to recycle waste) Switzerland now leads Europe in its recycling rate. The general awareness of green issues is everywhere, in the construction of new buildings and transport through to the widespread provision of recycling points (including in schools), to the assiduity with which people turn off lights when they leave rooms. It is perhaps not surprising given the enviable nature of their scenery, that the Swiss are a far more physically active nation than the British. At weekends and holidays, the countryside teems with walkers, cyclists and others; national transport is set up for example to allow the easy carriage of bicycles and skis around the country. The school calendars are arranged to allow families skiing holidays – and indeed participation in the annual carnivals in places where they happen.

7. Ruskin said of the Swiss, “They were…neither heroic nor base, but were true-hearted men…proud yet not allowing their pride to prick them into unwary or unworthy quarrel. You will find among them…only an undeceivable common sense…they use no phrase of friendship but they do not fail you at your need.” I think some of that still rings true.

There is very little showing-off in Switzerland – while quality is rated, showiness tends not to be. Wealth is not flaunted – perhaps because much of it is not new money; with no aristocracy to claw back from, the nation’s inheritance laws have ensured that a relatively high degree of wealth has been passed down the generations – which of course is also an incentive to be economically productive and efficient oneself.  One group of our guests was bemused by school uniforms; when asked what they were for, a quick answer seemed to be to stop the pupils having a fashion competition. The response was, “Why would they want to do that?” To British eyes, Switzerland tends to be a model of restraint; to the Swiss, I think it’s just natural.

There is consequently less hype than in the U.K. Quality is a given, but people just seem to get on with things rather than having to trumpet them to all and sundry. There is little talk of ‘world-class’ this or that, just a quiet intention to makes things work, and work well. While luxury clearly exists, greater Swiss life is actually quite functional, in a modernist sense (after all, the father of modernism, Le Corbusier was Swiss). Swiss trains, for example, don’t provide luxury – but everywhere you look things are of understated high quality. The presumption is that things will work – and that extends to the entitlements and expectations on individuals. There seems to be a much greater degree of individual trust in the workplace, an assumption that people will do the right thing unless proven otherwise – and if that should happen, it will be dealt with discretely, without any shows of temper. But there also seems to be a greater degree sense of equality: far more is done through negotiation than imposition; consensus seems important.

One downside of this can sometimes be impatience when things don’t come up to scratch; I suppose it isn’t surprising that perpetual exposure to high standards accustoms people to them.

8. The social contract is different. Rules exist that to British eyes seem quite draconian, such as evening or weekend restrictions on washing cars or laundry; the law requiring all cars to have winter tyres is perhaps just common sense. Registration plates attach to the owner, not the vehicle – which makes tracing people who drive badly a distinct possibility…The clear rule is that the individual should forgo some liberty for the sake of communal harmony; it seems to be accepted. A major contrast with the U.K. is the requirement for men to do annual military service.

On the other hand, the state somehow seems to retain a greater benevolence towards its citizens; there seems to be an implicit sense that it serves the nation as a whole, rather than social cliques or vested interest groups – or indeed the reverse, that the citizens serve the state. There are innumerable examples where small corporate things are done to make life easier for people at large (such as the range and flexibility of travel concession cards and the early introduction of not only ‘quiet’ but also family coaches on trains).One is repeatedly left with the impression that Swiss people are somehow more empowered as individuals than the British.  It’s hard to pin down, and I suspect it’s second-nature to them. I see it in the deep assumptions people seem to be making as they go about their everyday lives; it’s seen in the way the national fabric works to make daily life as convenient, efficient and seamless as possible. There generally seems to be a much greater presumption in favour of the sovereignty of the private individual than in the U.K. Yet conversely, egos are generally restrained; even the federal presidency operates on an annual rotation between members of the government…

I have attempted to avoid the more esoteric foibles of Swiss culture; my main aim is to look at ways in which everyday life – from practicalities to attitudes – inform a society that is more balanced than the British, that retains a healthier balance between economic priorities and social cohesion, that still has a sense of vision, as seen in its environmental stance and its cultural and intellectual richness. It seems more truly classless than Britain – though it needs to be admitted that this coherence comes at the price of sometimes-strident disapproval of ‘outsiders’; immigration is an issue that the Swiss are still struggling with – but with non-Swiss making up 20% of the population, maybe that is a little understandable?

The Switzerland I admire is not the Heidi-and-chocolate-box country of stereotypes, but a very modern, functioning nation. I think one thing I have realised in my sustained relationship with it (and my travels elsewhere), is just how closely the lives, opportunities  and outlooks of individual people are influenced by – and govern – the social structures of the whole; I believe the same applies, perhaps rather less benignly, in the case of my own country.

I hope I have avoided hagiography, but have now set the scene to look more closely at the Swiss education system in a future post.

Swiss flag

The Boy Outside the Bubble

An unexpected consequence of joining a profession like teaching – and I suspect any other occupation – is that your world-view becomes heavily distorted. When you spend upwards of 40 hours a week year after year doing the same thing, it cannot help but assume disproportionate significance in your mind, while the rest of the wider world retreats to the margins of your attention. Rather sadly, when a holiday is upon us, I often find that I simply can’t remember how to use all the time that teaching-related activity normally occupies, and I initially spend quite a lot of it just staring into space. Fortunately, my other interests normally take over quite quickly and my parallel life briefly resumes…

After a week when an independent school headmaster stated that he felt making (bad) teachers’ private lives hell was fair game, I think it does us well to regain a better sense of proportion. Such an impasse really does mark the point when the lunatics have taken over the asylum, and it’s worth remembering that not only does life go on ‘outside’ but we are actually meant to be part of it, rather than in a bubble all of our own.

It’s for this reason that I always try to contextualise my thinking about teaching within wider issues – after all, education is for life, not the other way round. Apart from anything else, I’m not sure how we can function as educators without having some perspective on how both we and our pupils fit into day-to-day life, and indeed the bigger picture. I have found that some of my most helpful perspectives on teaching have come not from the endless shelves of books dedicated to classroom practice, but from those covering other matters entirely –  which can nonetheless throw  useful shafts of light on life as a teacher. My current reading, for example,  is I Spend Therefore I Am – the True Cost of Economics by Philip Roscoe, which is provoking insight into just how far the ‘economization’ of life has arguably gone, and with what effects; more on this another time.

This is also the reason why I have always engaged with internationalism: seeing how another society does things is an excellent way of looking into one’s own bubble from the outside for a change. To my mind, this is indispensable for any teacher who wishes to retain a greater sense of what it’s all for in the first place. The benefits of doing so can also be found in the recent writings of Tim Walker, an American teacher living in Finland.

I once asked the philosopher Alain de Botton (himself half-Swiss) whether he thought it possible ever to know another country as well as the natives do; the predictably unpredictable reply was yes, in fact he thought outsiders could in some ways even know a country better, as they tend to notice things that the locals take for granted.

So if we are still motivated by the ideal of making for our country and people a ‘better future’, then maybe there are lessons we can cautiously learn from elsewhere. In my case, I am fortunate to know Switzerland well, having travelled there many times since childhood and having had friends there (both ex-pat and native) since the late ‘80s. I visit at least yearly, have been to most parts of the country, and through repeated visits have come to know a couple of localities in both the French and German areas very well. The ‘real’ Switzerland is, of course, not the country of the ‘chocolate box’ stereotype, but a modern, working country that just happens, in my view, to have got many day-to-day things right.

For the last seven or eight years I have worked closely with an anglophile Swiss teacher to develop a school partnership for both teachers and pupils; in that time, our two families have become close friends. I have also come to know more of the staff at his school, and this has allowed me a little more insight into how wider Swiss society and culture is reflected in its education system. This in turn provides useful perspectives on our own system in Britain – there is nothing quite like having  foreign guests on hand to hold a mirror up to how one does things at home…

But before one can attempt to assess a single undertaking such as the education system, one really needs to set it in context. I hope readers will bear with me and appreciate the brief respite from my grumbles about the less-than-perfect aspects of the British education system!

Even with extensive familiarity, though, it is still never easy to know whether one’s impressions are either accurate or representative – and how can one hope to sum up even a small nation in the space of a blog post?  Nonetheless, I will attempt to share some of my experiences and welcome any corrections from anyone who knows the country better than I. Should all this provoke further interest, I suggest the books of Diccon Bewes, whose ex-pat experiences offer an easily-read, if slightly glib introduction to the nation.

Switzerland is by no means perfect: it struggles with aspects of its recent past, and also with some aspects of the present day, as the globalised world increasingly impinges on its own distinctive way of life. That has been shown in recent days by the referendum vote to limit immigration, which is going to renegotiate Switzerland’s relationship with the E.U. Well, I suppose democracy carries with it the right to be wrong – but for Britons, perhaps a more significant lesson is the fact that Swiss democracy means that any citizens’ petition garnering more than 100,000 signatures automatically triggers a national referendum, the result of which is legally binding – even on the government. What would be the consequences of that happening in the U.K.?

Despite the obvious differences, Switzerland shares some experiences with Britain: both nations in some ways are ‘outsiders’ in the wider Europe, while still remaining inextricably bound to it – the British because of those 26 miles of water, and the Swiss because of their historic mountain barriers. There is also a bond between the two nations that stretches back to the 19th Century when British tourism started to develop what was then still a poor, marginal land. It is noticeable even today that there seems to be a natural empathy, visible in the way our groups of students almost always bond strongly, the British parents more-than-normally receptive to hosting Swiss students, in a way that does not always happen with other nationalities.

It’s difficult to draw conclusions from either nation’s past; despite determined independence, Switzerland’s historic relationship with Germany, for example, could not but be influenced by the two countries’ proximity. In Britain’s case, the effects of early industrialisation, Empire, a strong social hierarchy and two world wars remain ambivalently with us. Likewise, it is pointless considering Swiss approaches to life without remembering that in per capita terms it is one of the richest nations on the planet; without delving too deeply into how that came to be, it is incontrovertible that levels of public investment and provision in Switzerland are a reflection of that wealth.

We also need to bear in mind that the practicalities of doing things in a nation little over 200 miles long, with a population of eight million, are different from those in a nation of 63 million extending over several times that distance; on the other hand, Swiss and British population densities are very similar once one excludes the uninhabitable areas of the former (which themselves present unique challenges).  So we have to be careful about conclusions drawn from such comparisons, but that accepted, I think ordinary Swiss life can still provide thought-provoking experiences for those of us in education who are concerned with making that ‘better future’.

So, after this rather lengthy preamble, I will simply attempt to offer in following posts a concise set of personal impressions – usually those that have been borne out through repeated visits or through conversation with the natives – and then to move onto a more specific coverage of the education system. My aim in this is to prick the self-preoccupied bubble of British education just a little, to challenge the habitual exceptionalism of our national psyche, and to see what we might usefully learn from the experiences of others…

Gene-ie out of the bottle?

The slow-motion debate about the role heritability in educational achievement rumbles on. In an article for the current Prospect magazine, Jill Boucher who is a professor of developmental psychology at City University has written about her own experiences with her adoptive (now adult) children.

She claims that the science is clear – genetic inheritance does play some part in intellectual development, educational outcomes and perhaps social mobility as it does in every other aspect of human development. (The article does not delve deeply into the science – it’s probably not the most appropriate place to do so).The fact that those of certain socio-political persuasions find this unpalatable nonetheless cannot deny the science, and may in fact cause the issue to be driven underground rather than to be identified and addressed.

Boucher and her husband, both holders of doctorates, adopted two children who it turned out, were of unremarkable academic ability. Despite every possible exposure to educationally-positive values and environments, and the role-modelling and support of two highly-educated parents, neither child achieved more than a small number of G.C.S.E.’s. However, both are socially well-adjusted and hold down secure jobs, one as a lorry driver and the other as a chef. This is, of course ‘merely’ an individual anecdote, but one that nonetheless poses a difficult question for those who maintain that the correct environmental factors are all that is necessary for high achievement to follow.

A false dichotomy has been set up by those who reject the genetic claim: that to accept it is to give up on the developmental potential of education, somehow akin to eugenics, and at least tantamount to writing off large numbers of people from an early age. This is not so: to accept that people have their limits is certainly not to give up on developing them as far as they may be able. I am quite comfortable with my own approach as evidence of this – for all my love of high academic levels, I would rather work with less able but positively-inclined pupils than brilliant but lazy ones. Neither is the genetic case an argument for only concentrating educational resources on the brightest – as Professor Robert Plomin (whose work sparked the debate when picked up by Michael Gove’s special adviser) has said, one use of such information might be to target special needs provision earlier and more accurately.

Boucher says that in no way did their children’s lack of educational achievement compromise their experience of a caring upbringing, nor has it made them deficient members of society. The assumption that those who do not achieve high academic standards will somehow be deficient and most-likely ‘failures’ is arrogant and demeaning in its own right, and verges on a contingent view of human affection.

Rejecting the genetic argument also risks setting up unrealistic expectations of the education system: in a purely nurture-based model, the failure of an individual to achieve highly can only be down to the neglect of his or her teachers and/or parents. Equally, such a model can also be responsible for the setting of unachievable targets for pupils, with the potentially morale-damaging consequences of their failing to reach them. (Interestingly, I have also heard rumours that in a performance-related pay issue in the United States, a teacher sued her low-achieving pupils for loss of earnings. The mind boggles at the possibilities…)

For all that we largely lack a formally selective educational system, the tyranny of high achievement is, if anything, greater than ever. Only it is now predicated not on intelligence for its own sake, but for the potential it supposedly creates for high earnings and a climb up the ladders of power; the zero-sum culture now thoroughly ingrained in the outlook of many high-achieving schools certainly echoes the values of a winner-takes-all view of the world. This is a visibly-powerful driver in the social-educational values of south-east England, where the assumption seems to be that to have made it, one (still) needs to have secured a plum job in the City. The whole notion of educational ‘success’ has been narrowed to the extent that it is now defined by a small spectrum of income and occupational parameters that the majority of people will never attain – and in many case will probably never want or need to.

By identifying this issue, Boucher has highlighted one of my own enduring concerns about the high-stakes model: it imposes an implicit value-system onto what education is for – the acquisition of wealth and power, which is increasingly what educational ‘success’ seems to mean. As Boucher points out, what is wrong with educating people for a more modest life? It is arguably better to produce a society of well-balanced, responsible individuals who perform unspectacular but nonetheless very necessary roles, rather than produce a few high flyers and label everyone else as also-rans. This is neither defeatist nor anti-excellence, simply a more realistic appraisal of what may be possible and indeed desirable.

In my view, the acceptance of the genetic factor is best taken at a general level. To attempt to predetermine any one individual’s capabilities as a result of it would indeed be insidious, but used as a general rule of thumb, it can simply allow us to make a more realistic appraisal of what might be possible, accepting that success and failure need not only be defined in terms of the highest grades. Neither need it taint the genuine pleasure we feel in those individuals who go on to achieve more than might have been expected of them.

The much-vaunted case for education as generator of social-mobility (only ever upwards, note) may be both overstated and unnecessary.

What do you teach?

This may be the most-asked question, on discovering that someone is a teacher. On the first day of my post-graduate teacher-training course back in the mid-’80’s we were told that there is only one answer: Children.

Passing swiftly over the fact that children are not ‘What’, this was my first experience of the doctrinaire world of professional education. Over the ensuing months, it was rammed home that one’s teaching subjects are merely vehicles for the delivery of the bigger social plan. Other than that, they are just the obscure eccentricities of the intellectual elite – along with high culture. It was all very Eastern-bloc.  In a way this was remarkably prescient, because that is certainly the line that successive governments have since pursued as they have increasingly meddled in a hitherto largely-autonomous sector – right up to the present, controversial Mr. Gove, who seems to have other ideas. I suspect part of the educational establishment’s paroxysm at this man is the fact that he dares to question this article of faith.

There is an interesting article in this month’s Prospect magazine, centring on the work of John Goldthorpe, Emeritus Fellow of Sociology at Nuffield College Oxford. His interest is in social mobility, which he has researched with particular reference to Twentieth Century Britain.

The dream of increased social mobility is a fundamental driver of the social-engineering view of education; as usual, the reality tends to be different. Goldthorpe distinguishes between absolute mobility (in which everyone moves up the scale) and relative mobility, when people move relative to each other. It is the latter that tends to preoccupy educational policy-makers. But there is an uncomfortable problem: relative mobility implies that for some to move up, others must move down. This rarely happens, and would seem to conflict with notions of social justice – unless one is taking a hard-left revolutionary view of the role of education… The dream turns out not to be realisable.

Goldthorpe goes on to explode the misperception that mid-century mobility did exist and has now stalled. He found that the odds on a working-class person moving into the middle class have barely changed since the start of the twentieth century. The period in the 1950s and 60s when this did seem to be happening did not result in a fall in the privilege of higher-status groups, even if some of their wealth was appropriated.

The reason people were able to move into the middle class is explained simply by the major shift in the economic structure of the country, away from manufacturing towards services: blue-collar jobs declined and the demand for white-collar jobs expanded, which was met by the more educated members of the lower classes (who – my parents amongst them – had mainly attended the grammar schools so hated by the social engineers). As this process slowed, so did the apparent social mobility.

Accept this view and at a stroke you remove one of the key determinants of the current instrumentalised view of education.

If then, education is negligible as a force for social mobility, we are forced to ask afresh what precisely the whole thing is for. I will come to that another day.