TP hits TES…

From this week’s edition…

https://www.tes.com/news/school-news/breaking-views/its-a-mistake-assume-good-classroom-teachers-will-make-good

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Putting the Soul Back. Part III

A notorious historical phrase claimed that ‘Arbeit macht Frei’. It was wrong then and it is just as wrong now.

As I suggested in the previous post, the narrowing of educational objectives has been a cultural disaster. And not only that, there is only very weak evidence to suggest that the impact on Britain’s economic performance has been anything other than slight. The nation’s poor productivity and overall skill levels have stubbornly refused to improve; average earnings remain depressed and the range polarised. Furthermore, I suggest there is little evidence that our society is becoming generally more sophisticated, cultured and thoughtful – which might equally be reasonable a expectation of a more educated populace. What has perhaps been achieved is a supplier-side benefit in terms of making education (supposedly) more easily definable for the purposes of the accountability processes imposed on it by government – but that is hardly the principal aim of the exercise.

In a post-modern, secular society, difficult questions arise as to precisely what education is for. The initial societal gains in terms of the elimination of absolute poverty, and the controlling of adverse demographic and public health conditions have largely been achieved. In a morally and culturally pluralistic situation, it is no longer possible to impose universal moral imperatives on education such as were used by religious educators in the past.  So what is it for?

If one looks at those societies generally accepted as being the most advanced in the world, one notices the generally high-quality of nearly everything:

  • Certainly the material quality of goods available is generally high, but so often is the access to cultural and artistic capital by a wide proportion of the population. Wealth is not just monetary.
  • People seem confident in their ability to steer their own lives and make their own decisions. They accept ‘agency’.
  • There are relatively high levels of social discourse and political engagement.
  • Local democracy often seems to be strong, as do social support networks and institutions;
  • Electoral systems are sophisticated enough to reflect the pluralistic views of a thoughtful electorate.
  • Large percentages of the workforce are engaged in high-skill, high remuneration work, often in innovative sectors such as R&D, environmental sustainability and artificial intelligence.
  • Often, those societies are receptive to social experimentation and innovation in terms of ways of living and the relationship between the state and the citizen.
  • Quite often they support high levels of direct taxation in the interests of good social provision.
  • The level of basic needs provision, especially housing, is high – not only in terms of quantity but also quality. People feel secure.
  • There seem to be low levels of social or economic envy.

I have sourced these characteristics from a number of countries, mostly in Europe where the model is most prevalent. Denmark, Switzerland, The Netherlands, Germany and the other Scandinavian countries feature prominently. Britain does not.

I think the only workable answer the question of education’s purpose in such societies is the optimisation of every individual’s life experience. It should not be defined any more closely than that, for fear of excluding certain aspects of great importance to some of those individuals. That is enough of a big ‘ask’ to keep us going for some time. I consider it consists of two interlinking matters:

  1. The ability of the individual to achieve autonomy, authenticity and self-actualisation;
  2. The understanding that that ability needs to function with consideration for the needs of others to do the same.

One might hope that an understanding that peaceable negotiation is the optimum means of dispute resolution would figure in there somewhere, too – as might the cerebral skills necessary to resist the incursions of others through means of deception or manipulation. As the psychologist Mihali Csikszentmihalyi has said, “People without an internalised symbolic system can all too easily become captives of the media. They are easily manipulated by demagogues, pacified by entertainers and exploited by anyone who has something to sell.” The recent past holds a clear lesson for Britain in this respect.

That ‘internalised symbolic system’ means a set of values, priorities, preferences and insights that are specific to the sovereign individual concerned; education has a major role to play in developing it. For me, Csikszentmihalyi’s statement sums up superbly the absolute imperative for education to be a liberating force, rather than an enslaving one in the way educating for employability greatly risks being. Our role as teachers is not primarily to subjugate the spirit and free will of young individuals to the requirements of their future employers, even if encouraging them to develop the qualities and aptitudes that may appeal to those employers is part of it. Neither is it to deliver cash-ready consumers to corporate markets.

Far more important is the need to enable people to follow their own inclinations as far as they choose, provided of course that this does not impair the ability of others to do the same. Where this happens, it tends to demonstrate the kind of active engagement with life outlined above, rather than the very passive, delegated experience that I suggest many in Britain currently have; it is widely known, for instance, that the British have the highest level of T.V. viewing, some of the longest recreational shopping times and the lowest levels of physical activity engagement in Europe.

There remains the vexed question of what those values should be; either we submit to a set of accepted norms, which are by definition externally-defined, or we descend into a morass of cultural relativism where nothing can be deemed either to be superior to anything else, nor to be of any intrinsic value itself. If that is the case, the only resort available is indeed the transfer of purely utilitarian assets. The likely consequence of this is a life lived in an equally utilitarian way, which also tends to mean a low-level functionalism, without the personal ambition or emotional investment necessary to savour many of life’s best experiences.

Csikszentmihalyi has useful things to say about this too: rather than pass arbitrary judgements about what is worth doing and what is not, we should, he suggests, focus on developing complexity. No matter what the activity, doing it at a high level, with personal challenge and the resultant sense of both achievement and growing insight, should be our aim. This is what causes individuals to ‘grow’ as people, and what provides the incentive for further development. From the perspective of the employer, it is these attributes that will provide effective employees – and they are only delivered by a much wider type of education than one aimed specifically at ‘employability skills’. It is worth noting, however, that if such individuals are indeed desired, it is more likely that they will be autonomous and independent-minded – and less susceptible to domination or exploitation by unscrupulous or uncaring employers (or retailers). In a wider societal sense, this surely has to be a good thing.

I would argue, however, that it is not beyond the abilities of modern societies to come to at least a loose consensus over what the ‘good things’ in life are. These need by no means all be material, though many of them contain material elements. One of the problems with modern consumption is that it largely happens for the wrong reasons – and this too is partly an educational matter. If we accept even a vague notion of ‘the good life’, then it perhaps implies an expectation on the part of the individual to be able to access it. The problem is where those expectations are perceptually ‘located’ in people’s minds.

An economic reading of the world implies that most of one’s needs are satisfied externally, via some form of trade and consumption. While this is often the case, modern societies have taken it to such an extreme that it seems that anything one desires can be had depending only on the size of one’s wallet. This is a fundamental mistake: as study after study has shown, beyond a fairly basic level of material need, the acquisition of more externally-supplied assets does little in itself to create a more rewarding life, and may even do the opposite. The error is to believe that happiness comes from outside oneself. In fact, even in situations involving material goods, the satisfaction that they (can) bring is largely internal, through a developed sense of appreciation and enjoyment. Mere ownership, let alone competitive ownership, is not enough to do that.

The interesting thing from an educational point of view is the fact that the ‘only’ thing that separates an inexpert consumer from a connoisseur is the ability of the individual to appreciate what they have. It is not the ability to pay: there is nothing to stop a rich ignoramus from buying, for example an expensive wine that he or she will largely fail to appreciate, and nothing to stop a relatively impecunious connoisseur saving up for one from which he or she will derive far more satisfaction than the rich-but-inexpert person. The significant difference between the individuals is not their wealth but their complexity – and that is a matter that education can do something about. And yet even education, these days, is making the error of suggesting to people that it is their (financial) wealth alone that will provide a good life.

Take care of yourself – seriously

I remember the first lesson I ever taught. It was in a typical 1950’s-built school in the suburbs of Norwich. Monday period 1: 3rd year (as it then was) French – and I wasn’t even a French specialist. The Head of Department had approved my plan with his habitual phrase, remembered to this day: “It’s all grist to the mill…!”

The lesson was, in what I suspect is a fairly common experience, a hammer blow. My preparation hadn’t been half thorough enough; there was a flaw in one of the activities, and I hadn’t reckoned seriously enough with the gratuitous bait-the-student-teacher disruption… I guess that’s why we have teacher training.

It took quite a few years for feelings of confidence to emerge; I remember my father saying it took him about ten to be reasonably satisfied with his teaching. I don’t think there was ever anything wrong – indeed on several occasions more experienced colleagues told me in no uncertain terms not to be so hard on myself. By the time I reached last year, I was even reasonably comfortable with describing myself as unconsciously competent in the classroom – if that isn’t a contradiction in terms.

But in the light of experience, I can’t help reflecting on the several posts I wrote on the subject of introversion, most relevantly here:

https://ijstock.wordpress.com/2013/12/07/groucho-was-right/

Also here https://ijstock.wordpress.com/2013/11/15/shhh/ and here https://ijstock.wordpress.com/2017/01/06/feeling-nervous/

If you happen to be a sensitive and not outgoing or gregarious individual, the damage the rough and tumble of teaching does can be particularly serious. A colleague of thirty years expressed incredulity that I felt such characteristics applied to me, so effectively had I masked my inner self for all that time. I was always my own harshest critic – but, I reasoned,  how many teachers would say the same? It must be in the tens of thousands….Still, I did the day-job week in, week out, swallowing the pressure, trying to reconcile the irreconcilable, doing the things I was told to even when I had deep reservations about them – without any serious thought that it was storing up harm…

My point is this: everyone who does it knows that teaching is a high pressure game – but we still don’t know it – in the sense of being aware of the impact it can (or should that be does?) have. We become so habituated to its demands – the pressurised day-to-day working life, the pressure from managers and politicians, the fact that our evenings and weekends are barely our own – that we treat it as normal. It is not.

As the years went by, I became dimly aware that other people did not experience the same relentless pressure as I did, such that my waking life was utterly dominated by my work; theirs weren’t. Which is not to say that other jobs are not pressurised – but few somehow seem to consume people like teaching does.

As more years went by, the cumulative impact on my health increased – but so gradually that I barely noticed: each little niggle was simply a little niggle, that happened to be a bit bigger than it had been before. When the gloom that was the early signs of depression started appearing, it was just that I was having a bad day. Except it wasn’t.

It is probably true that these things have a harsher impact on the quieter, more introverted people – but just read Bottomsbray’s latest post here https://bottomsbray.wordpress.com/2017/11/25/anatomy-of-a-breakdown/  to show that it can happen to anyone.  He and I are roughly of an age; our careers have tracked each other. If anything, he has had a narrower escape than I did. But looking back, it is clearer than ever before, just how significant the impact of teaching over those last thirty years of constant, turbulent change in the profession has been. I wonder how many more people there are out there who are nursing the same scars, and who may (heaven forbid) be heading in the same direction. If you are, as Bottomsbray says, seek help and don’t be proud about it.

I said it numerous times, but even I didn’t believe it until I saw it: the effect of putting intelligent, conscientious people under that amount of pressure for that amount of time is not pretty. In effect throwing them on the scrapheap to fend for themselves at the end of it is worse – a lot worse, and that still hurts.

But after a year without teaching, I now have a life that more closely resembles those of other people: work is work – and the rest of life is my own. Around the home, many things that had been neglected for years have gradually been put in order; I have time to spend with my wife and friends, and just to cook nice things for dinner. I have time to engage in projects in our community, that I just didn’t have the time or energy for before. I have a more balanced life – and if it weren’t for the remaining ‘head’ issues, it would be great.

It is not inevitable that a career in teaching destroys all that: my parents managed a better balance in their day – and my Swiss friend Alfred always retained a better work-life balance even while he was still teaching. It is just the utter madness that the British education system has become that is doing the damage; a madness that is making a few executive head teachers rich and powerful, delivering a sterile, hollowed-out ‘education’ to the next generation – and burning this one out in the process. It cannot continue.

I have been doing plenty of ‘work’ during the past year, not least finishing a book expanding many of the above ideas much further, developing much else that I have covered over the years in this blog, and examining ways in which a different, more sustainable model could achieve benefits all round. It is currently in production with John Catt Publishers and should be out in the New Year. More details in due course.

Notes from beyond 3 – Wish you were here?

Mixed feelings at a time when I am aware the school holidays are coming to a close; I will try not to gloat when I remind you that mine continue ad infinitum – albeit with the remnants of a very uncomfortable head to deal with… I am slightly apprehensive about the coming watershed, when all my former colleagues return to work, and I don’t. There is also the small matter of a financial brick wall lurking in the latter part of next spring…

When I was a child, the summer holidays seemed to go on forever; this year it is particularly noticeable that it was only five minutes ago that they were beginning… So having done my gloating, I will observe that in a sense I have had no holiday at all. While others were abroad, I am not yet in a position to follow suit, even though we’ve had a few nice days out locally. What’s more, my entire personal calendar, by which the pulse of life’s routine was measured ever since I was three, has been abolished – including the holiday feeling. It’s strangely disorientating.

On the increasing number of better days, I’ve been exploring my options. The good news is, it looks very much as though my second book (and first on teaching) has found a willing publisher – though I’m not counting my chickens. More details in due course, if they become warranted. Book number three, on something entirely different, is also underway.

I have also been dabbling in local politics, again something for which I didn’t have time ‘before’. People keep telling me how many transferrable skills teachers have, though I must admit I was sceptical. But it seems that this is actually a case of unconscious competence: without divulging too much, those skills do seem to have come to the fore. I am beginning to think that they may not even be fully visible to teachers themselves, as they are not quite the ‘usual suspects’:

  1. The ability to be self-sufficient. Having seen the extent to which many people rely on teams and committees to move forward – and how sluggish this can be – one of the teacher’s strengths comes from their autonomous ability to get things done. From necessity, teachers need not to rely overly on others – they don’t have secretaries and sub-committees and minions to delegate to: they just do stuff. That is a great strength.
  2. Communication. I managed to cause a long-running debate on the local community’s Facebook page; it ran for several days. I did what any teacher does naturally, and tried to balance the discussion, ask the dissenters to elaborate and explain what they would prefer, etc. etc. As a result, several unexpected plaudits have come my way. I received similar when I worked as public-facing volunteer on a steam railway some years ago – just for doing what came naturally as a teacher. It clearly is a rarer – and more appreciated – skill than I thought.

A while ago my former school went through a tough patch; I gently fished my tutor group for their thoughts. One said, “It’s hardly surprising we’re all fed up when half the teachers seem as though they don’t want to be here either!” They were right, and it was particularly saddening in a school that used to be a relatively happy and motivated place; I’ll leave you to figure out what had changed.

But it’s clear that teachers’ soft skills have more impact than perhaps they appreciate – so don’t forget to have a smile on your face and a song in your voice when you return in the coming weeks; I’ll have one there for you!!!

For what? (part one)

2016-10-25-21-33-02-1

I’ve heard it said that if you want to understand why education is so important for a country, then just look at one that has none. It’s a point that is hard to argue with – and yet the connection between the life-experiences of people in various parts of the world and their educational experiences is anything but direct.

Empowering people to make more considered decisions about everything from their birth rates to their economic activities or their use of leisure time seems such an obvious thing to do, and it is clear that in aggregate terms there is an effect – even though what we teach rarely relates directly to such trends. Yet education also implies empowering people to make increasingly divergent decisions about their lives, rather than following patterns stipulated by others. There is a pretty significant contradiction here.

What’s more, when one looks at widely-educated nations, the connection between education and life-choices seems to diminish. Putting my curmudgeonly hat on for a moment, the harder I look at life in Britain, the less certain I am about what it is that the increasingly-urgent imperative for more and more education is actually meant to be bringing. When it comes to the norms of British life today, I find it hard to see where education’s effect actually lies.

This comes into sharper relief every time I travel to our near-neighbours on the continent. To be blunt, ‘Here’ I see many supposedly-educated people for whom that experience seems to inform their lives almost not at all; ‘There’ I see by comparison an attractive way of life for which formal education can presumably only be a partial cause. And I know those countries well enough for it not all to be just rose-tinted spectacles.  If the point of education even in developed countries is supposedly to improve the quality of people’s lives, are we looking for the wrong thing in the first place? And if it is not that, once the basics of life have been addressed, then what?

Like most (all?) teachers, I choose to believe in the transformative effect of education – in its ability to change lives substantively for the better – even if I also see it as the only alternative to remaining in savagery. If this is not the case, then just why is so much effort invested in improving ‘opportunity’ for those who supposedly do not already have it? But what does that opportunity consist of? Are we deluded to think that a more educated mind – let alone more bits of paper with grades on – really can make much real difference to people’s time on this planet?

I rather fear that it actually means little more than the ability to work harder or spend more, thereby enriching our masters further. I suppose it may also mean the ability to support one’s dependents better, thereby being less of a burden on the State – thus enriching our masters further. But do such things really equate to ‘more opportunity’ – let alone the best that education can offer? The societal effect of education is actually cross-generational, but in which case, is the story we peddle that learning generally transforms individual lives anything more than a white lie? True, people will sacrifice much for their children – but there comes a point when perpetual deference to the future becomes pointless. In a secular world, the best solution has to be for each equally-valuable life to be lived as well as possible in its own right.

I certainly don’t equate being bound ever more irrevocably into the economic treadmill with a better quality of life. It seems to me, too, that the focus simply on the grades people achieve – which ties them inescapably into an economised view of education-as-currency, rather than what actually happens in their heads during the educative process – is a corruption of the basic aspiration of that activity.

My half-term holiday involved travel by train to Strasbourg, and thence to our friends in Switzerland and their second home in the Black Forest. I took the heading photograph in a restaurant in a remote village 3000 feet up in said Forest . We had just finished stomping up a gorge by a waterfall, followed by an hour’s soak in the local spa-pool: an enlightened amenity for a backwoods – but not neglected – community. We ended with a delicious meal in this homely, family-run restaurant. But what has this to do with education – for all that our party consisted of people with Master’s and Doctorate qualifications? I suppose one might argue that education alters the value one attaches to such experiences, but that seems far from universal – I can think of many who would be bored by the prospect – and I doubt holding a PhD is a prerequisite for appreciating it either.

Question: does education really change the values one has in life?

So what is all the education really for? Germany and Switzerland excel at the ‘protestant work ethic’ – and no doubt running a successful restaurant or spa is indeed hard work when measured in time and physical effort – but where does education really come into it, beyond an ability to add takings up or read the regulations? It is unlikely to generate the understanding that even in business, authenticity and joie-de-vivre are important assets. Likewise, accumulating the money to acquire second homes and pay for meals requires work – but that is hardly sufficient to sum up the beneficial effects.

It seems to me that the things that I find so attractive about those countries’ quality of life have less to do with education than their transmitted culture. They may value hard work and they certainly have no shame about material wealth – but those are not the things that alone bring their high quality of life. If anything, the opposite is true: it is the remaining awareness that the good life is about more than material factors that is important. Contrast this with a conversation overheard amongst educated Britons recently, to the effect that customer-loyalty is pointless any more since all companies overcharge and one should ruthlessly shop around in order to beat the price down. It seems a bleak, dehumanised view even of commerce – and one for which a little independent thought might prompt a re-evaluation.

During our trip, we encountered unfailingly friendly, courteous people in shops, restaurants and the street – as we always do. I’m not so naïve as to believe this is the whole truth – but it is nonetheless a regularly repeating experience. One assumes they do not all hold doctorates, nor put the pleasantness on just for foreigners – but the impression is of a positive outlook on life that if nothing else still has time for the basic civilities.

As always, we found a comfortable, solid stability that appears to provide a high quality of lived experience, no matter how educated people might (not) be. I’m not suggesting that there is no hardship or conflict in those places – I have seen enough of the less attractive side of the continent to know better than overlook it.  But the overall sense is of a better, more satisfied life-balance than is widely achieved in the U.K. where life seems perpetually precarious – as the various ‘social pathologies’, let alone more overt recent expressions of dissatisfaction might suggest.

People ‘over there’ do have pressured lives – but they still seem to retain a greater sense of personal agency, and an awareness that the good life has to come from within – precisely the things that one might expect good education to inform. And they do it seemingly without recourse to either the bleak social Darwinism of the British Right or the indulgent dependency-culture of the Left. One might add a sense that civic structures in those countries are more enabling and less punitive and miserly in their outlook than those we have here.

By contrast, my impression of this country is that no matter how hard one works, Quality of Life is an elusive concept. I have sent countless young people out from my school whose expectation seems to be that life is a rat-race in which the sole purpose is to earn as much cash as possible, unaware of the fact that doing so may cause impoverishment in many other ways. Plenty see education as little more than a necessary evil to accomplish this.

For all the eventual high salaries of South-East England, this seems to me to be a recipe for a dull, unsatisfying life, the proof of which is the ceaseless, fruitless scrabble for privileged economic status in the town where the school is located. Yet that town itself is a dull, lifeless place; its wealth does not seem to bring it a greater quality of life. Furthermore, that life is seen as competitive rather than collaborative, about extrinsic success rather than intrinsic satisfaction – is, I think, a deeply important point. Put our pupils (as I often have) alongside their Swiss or German counterparts and ask them about their respective lives and the contrast screams loud…

(To be continued)

What if everything they told you….? (with apologies to David Didau)

I guess I had a pretty traditional up-bringing, being taught by my parents that adults were sensible people who knew what they were doing. O tempora! O mores!

I am increasingly of the view that the vast mass of humanity actually has very little idea at all what it is up to, something that education has so far only managed to fiddle with around the edges. One might have thought, however, that those who put themselves forward for positions of power or responsibility would have had an above-average grasp of the larger tides of human affairs, and have been aware of the various ways of interpreting them. It seems maybe not.

Naturally there are differing, sometimes competing readings of the world, and it is unlikely that there will ever be consensus on the way forward – but one might have expected those with the power to make significant decisions at least to have considered a range of alternatives. It seems that even that is too much to hope for. In recent months, I have had several conversations with people both in and out of education, where an awareness of some pretty important ideas was most conspicuous by its absence.

I accept that my tendency to home in on alternative views perhaps sends me in less-trodden directions. I do this not because I am a serial rebel, but because I believe that one has an educated duty at least to find out what those alternatives are, particularly when the present choice seems not to be working very well. And I am not talking about obscure issues; Oliver James (Affluenza), Daniel Pink (Drive), Mihalyi Csikszentmihalyi (Flow) and Margaret Heffernan (Wilful Blindness) are hardly insignificant – and yet the vast majority of people, even within the profession, seem never to have heard of them. As I said, one might have thought that those charged with making significant decisions would have at least ranged widely before settling their own outlooks.

And yet ideas that people work best when nurtured rather than put-upon, that intrinsic motivations normally out-strip extrinsic ones, that internal challenge is a key driver of human actions, or that management often cannot/chooses not to see as much as it thinks – seem widely unknown. I am not suggesting that everyone should agree with these ideas – but one might expect them to have at least been considered before adopting the opposite.

I am making further progress through Ha-Joon Chang’s book, and I am increasingly impressed by his critical but balanced approach to the ‘truths’ upon which much contemporary social and economic policy is based. He has just addressed the relationship between education and economic growth, upon which much recent policy in Britain has been based.

He dismantles the claim that education is the key to economic growth, examining the many cases where growth occurred despite a lack of education. He dismisses claims that the modern ‘knowledge economy’ changes the game – salient knowledge has always been the source of competitive advantage, he says, so nothing new there. What is more important is the structure within which it is deployed.

He goes on to discuss the weak and unimportant link between what is taught in schools and workplace skills. He argues that it is usually generic skills that give graduates the edge, rather than subject expertise. It cannot be otherwise, since workplaces are too diverse ever to be catered for at school level, even university level, and their specific demands can often only be learned on the job. It is an error to believe otherwise.

He examines the case of Switzerland, which has achieved the world’s highest economic productivity and yet has one of the lowest rates of university enrolment. Until 1996, it was just 16%. (He does rather ignore that country’s extensive system of vocational training – but this is not inconsistent: work-specific training has a better chance of driving economic growth than the general education that schools can offer). Chang offers wider examples that suggest that education is a very weak driver of economic growth, and that research has failed to find much correlation between growth and even fairly concrete measures such as maths scores. If we want to head in that direction, maybe we should take note.

Yet Chang is not arguing for less education. He says it is one of the most important things a society can provide for its people – but its benefits are not primarily economic. Education’s role is to broaden and enrich people’s lives in ways that material wealth alone cannot. Its main economic contribution is indirect: the creation of a contented and independent population/workforce that lives balanced lives and has the perspective to understand that good economic functioning is an important but not unique aspect in a well-lived life.  Knowing Switzerland well, I would say this is a very apparent characteristic of that country (but not of the U.K).

Chang argues that the drive to increase participation in higher education has also been misplaced. The economic role of education, he says, is largely limited to indicating to employers the level of skill they might expect from a given individual; all the growth of higher education has done is to dilute the skill-set one might expect of a graduate – and having a regular news-feed from our local university, this would seem to be the case. The result has simply been degree-inflation and the down-grading of graduate status. Further evidence that more education can even be economically counter-productive.

Chang’s view is of course only one among many – and yet it seems to me that he and the many others who are arguing for different approaches are systematically ignored by those who actually make policy, be that governments or individual school managers. What’s more, at the risk of my own confirmation-bias, I would say that it seems like common-sense to individuals like me who think a lot about such matters – and yet even within our own establishments, we are too often voices in the wilderness.

At a time when many social and economic problems seem more intractable than ever, one might have thought it wise at least to be casting around for as many views as possible – but bitter experience tells me that entrenched dogma seems to be the order of the day. Those who reach positions of power do not necessary know better than – or perhaps even as well as – some of the rest of us. Is it just ambition or ruthlessness, rather than breadth of vision that allows them to rise, thereby perpetuating one (often harshly Darwinian) view at the expense of the others?

What price enlightened decision-making?

More please!

Some days ago, The (soon to be ex-) Independent reported on the latest University Technical College to open. Based in West Bromwich, it specialises in preparing pupils for work in the health sector. I was never a fan of Kenneth Baker when he was education secretary, but I agree with the Indy’s report, that sometimes people’s best work is not done at the highest-profile times of their lives.

In this case, Baker has delivered something I’ve argued we desperately need in this country, namely high-quality vocational education for those of that inclination. Unlike many other British attempts at vocational education, UTC’s feel like something solid.

While the article claims that ‘other western countries’ (namely the U.S.) don’t push their young people into anything this specialised as young as fourteen, I think this is misleading. Plenty of our nearest neighbours, notably Germany and Switzerland have had technical schools for 14-19 year-olds for decades, and I think it is no coincidence that their recent industrial and commercial reputation is superior to ours.

While we should perhaps ignore the quotes from pupils “not regretting the choice” (as they haven’t had the chance to make a comparison), the impressive employability figures of earlier UTC’s seems to support the claims being made for them.

The longer I teach, and currently witnessing a changing pupil profile, the more I become convinced that we should be offering a large proportion of young people something radically different. It is worth noting that UTCs do offer ‘A’ Levels and a route to university, so it is not a matter of being intellectually second-rate. But an increasing number of the children I encounter seem to struggle with traditional academic demands and perhaps more significantly appear to perceive little value in what people like me can teach them. Perhaps it is time to accept the reality, that the majority of people will never be greatly academic, and do something different. And of course, that way, those who do prefer the traditional academic route could be left to pursue it without the drag caused by those who don’t want to be there. There are currently 39 UTCs, but in my opinion we should have one, or something like them, in every town.

But conventional schools are often refusing to co-operate:

Most of the students had also been urged by their schools not to make the switch.  Last week it was revealed most secondary schools had closed their doors to the UTC movement and refused to allow it to address their pupils about what opportunities were on offer.

So once again educational vested interests take precedence over a development that may be in the genuine best interests of some young people. Although there are plans for more UTCs, what I don’t understand is why this is being done piecemeal rather than as a coherent national strategy – or why other schools are being allowed to boycott them in this way. All for the benefit of the children, of course.

 

In other news, it is pleasing to see the Schools Minister Nick Gibb echoing traditionalist views that education should celebrate the fascination of knowledge rather than dispensing “joyless processes”. I wonder if he read my recent pieces on the tedium of hoop-jumping education.

It’s a short leap from there to the admission for teachers’ organisations that A Level student’s predicted grades are being inflated under pressure from students, parents and (sometimes) school managements. When one’s performance is all that matters, and the stakes for getting it wrong are so high, just why are we surprised? All in all, it’s what you get if you treat education as little more than a pre-packaged commodity.

 

A taste of forbidden fruit.

There seems to be wide agreement amongst my colleagues that the single greatest improvement that could be brought about in educational outcomes would be achieved by creating time for teachers to do their jobs properly.

I am a fan of the system I have seen in Switzerland and Germany, where teachers for the most part do just teach. They are not required to be in school when they are not either doing that, or are fulfilling other commitments such as meetings. They are also paid enough that many can afford the choice of working 75-90% timetables, and opting for more time over more money. It doesn’t seem to make for poorer education.

I have seen this working many times when staying with my colleague in our Swiss partner school, but this morning, I sampled how it might feel, British-style. I had an unmovable medical appointment at 11am, and given my thirty-mile trip to work it was not worth going in beforehand. I was able to get up at a reasonable time, actually wake up properly (I’ve never been a morning person), have a gently-paced breakfast and take a shower. I then sat down and did a couple of hours’ work (i.e. not much less than I would have at school) safe in the knowledge that there would be no interruptions. Thanks to the internet, I was able to communicate with colleagues and access resources in addition to those I keep at home. It was all most productive, and I have now prepared many of next week’s lessons, leaving me a rather freer weekend and more time to get my marking done without consuming the whole of Sunday.

I was then able to write this post before popping out to the shop to buy a newspaper and heading along to the surgery. I’m fortunate that I live somewhere where these things (and many more) can be done within about five minutes’ walk of my front door. The appointment did not take long, so I was still in plenty of time to arrive at school for my next lesson at 12.30.

I worked an eleven-hour day (plus 90 minutes’ travel) yesterday thanks to a parents’ evening, so this was all most welcome. For my friend in Switzerland, a day like this was not unusual even before he retired, and it made the sometimes-long days and early starts of the Swiss system more acceptable as there is balance. It allows people to manage their lives and provides a respite from the hurly-burly of the school environment.

Yes, today’s schedule was bought at the cost of a colleague or supply teacher covering for me – but done properly, the larger number of teachers needed would resolve that – and it would create jobs! The total staff roll in my friend’s school is almost as large as ours – for less than half the number of pupils.

While Britain has a teacher shortage, this is clearly pie in the sky – but such improved conditions might in themselves start to resolve that problem. Working conditions such as this would, I suggest be win-win, with a better life-balance for teachers and more considered work being done. I wonder whether a free school would be allowed to operate such a model – but as far as I know, it has never been tried. I doubt it would be allowed to get off the ground – not good ‘value for money’ (for which read punishing enough). It’s also too far removed from the daily experience of those who make such decisions, many of whom seem to have forgotten what it is like to teach a full timetable, and who already enjoy some of this flexibility themselves in any case.

We can but dream.

Turning it all around #1: Child-centredness

…the first of several short posts questioning supposedly universal truths in education but which are, as several other writers have discussed recently, nothing of the sort – simply acts of faith which have no more grounding than the alternative practices which they have been used to discredit. In at least some cases, it is not difficult to suspect they may even lead to poorer outcomes.

I am indebted to Quirky Teacher for a recent post about child-centeredness, which set a train of thought in motion. She suggested that child-centeredness has the unexpected outcome of stifling children’s development – by making children the centre of adults’ attention and descending to their level, we are depriving them of models of how adults think and behave, and thereby mature standards to aspire to.

And yet this has become so embedded in educational (and wider societal) consciousness that it is barely questioned these days. To fail to come down to the level of the child is supposedly to demonstrate one’s lack of empathy, and unsuitability for a role like teaching. To maintain some adult distance from the immature behaviours of children is to manifest one’s remoteness – and yet to treat them like proto-adults, who are capable of sensible consideration of thoughtful ideas without the need to dress material up as games, or to talk down to them,  is to expect too much.

We in the U.K. have a strangely ambivalent attitude towards children. On the one hand, we neglect them (see the UN report some years ago) while we are busy building our careers and social lives – and then we indulge and smother them to assuage our guilt. We have a romantic, backward-looking view of childhood that we expect children to fulfil, then we flip again, using them as the vicarious matter for our own competitive parenting – and for an encore we try to shield them from every conceivable contretemps in a way that more reflects our own paranoia than any accurate perception of either the real risks, or their ability to cope. Just look at the average school trip risk-assessment. And yet that indulgence is a means of avoiding having to treat young people in a more considered way, of ensuring they continue to dance to our tune.

This problem has big repercussions. If children are never led to understand that the world does not revolve around them, they risk never learning to cope with the demands made on them by the unsympathetic world at large. They may never develop an understanding of the need to modify their behaviours or defer their gratification when in situations where other people require consideration. They may never develop a measured understanding of respect or reasonable authority.

If adults immediately stop what they are doing and pay instant attention every time a child pipes up, the young will never understand that they need to wait their due turn– and if their every demand is instantly met, they will never realise the value of  longer time-frames – and the fact that one cannot normally have everything one wants in this world simply for the stamp of a foot.

The seems to me to be a very plausible reason why many otherwise normal children have difficulty operating in communal situations such as the classroom, why they frequently expect instant attention, and why they feel they can, for example, question instructions that they do not like. In many cases I encounter, there does not seem to be a wish to disobey; some of these children genuinely do not understand that they cannot have everything their own way. In the olden days, we called it ‘spoiled’. It also suggests why many of the same children have at best a tenuous work ethic, despite coming from comfortably-off working homes.

Yet the constant emphasis on overt ‘discipline’ in British schools and homes equally suggests a lack of confidence in young people’s ability to get things right – hardly surprising when they don’t often get the chance. There was dumbstruck silence in my current G.C.S.E. class when I asked them why they expected me to start from the assumption they were lazy, untrustworthy and disobedient, rather than the opposite.

The plague of child-centredness is just another manifestation of the hidden problem of ‘success’ – an increasingly self-indulgent complacency created within society, which breeds a culture of entitlement that significantly shifts the balance within a pupil’s relationship with his or her school and teachers. It seems to be seen most strongly in newly-affluent areas where entitlement is all and responsibility seemingly ignored.

Anecdote suggests a different approach is often taken on the continent. Children are neither idealised nor patronised. They seem less likely to be supervised every moment of the day (they do not even need to be in school all day in some countries). There are far fewer restaurants that offer kids’ menus (i.e. beans and chips) – and it is far more normal to see children eating ‘adult’ food, without the pickiness that many British children exhibit. They are expected – and trusted – to confirm to general expectations of table manners and so on. There are other similar signs of greater self-reliance in young people – but also a relationship with adults that seems simultaneously less formal and yet more respectful. I suppose it is simply part of the way people in general treat each other.

Poor parenting is an easy target for blame – but here I think it really does have a case to answer. It comes not from deprived areas from where we condescendingly expect no better – rather from those, often educated, who might indeed be expected to know better. But on second thoughts, when one remembers the media and commerce-induced phenomenon of kidult-hood  we might begin to see a repeating pattern. Childishness is the new adulthood, it seems. The children of such people will never have the opportunity to see how thoughtful, mature adults behave at home, either.

In this case, school needs to become even more the place where children are shown how to grow into adults, not how to remain children indefinitely.

Good for Business?

One of the worst accusations in Britain today, it seems, is to be ‘anti-business’. It comes with associated overtones of luddism, of being anti-wealth, anti-opportunity and out-of-date. And worst of all, it supposedly betrays the heresy of being anti-capitalist, a give-away for old-style socialism, the last retreat of duffle-coat-wearing, stony-faced hard-leftists whose world-view was discredited three decades ago.

It is also an insult still regularly thrown at the teaching profession by those in the business world, often accompanied by complaints that teachers have an easy life, fail to prepare young people for the ‘world of work’ etc. etc. Most regrettably, it  comes in the same breath that also denounces academics for being ‘ivory tower’ (i.e. useless) and that propounds the ‘University of Life’, school of hard knocks and the rest of it – ad nauseam. As if a life of undeserved hard knocks is anything worth advocating  – or indeed the kind of society that dispenses them.

A letter was sent this week by a hundred ‘business leaders’ to The Daily Telegraph, urging people to vote Conservative for the good of business; it was widely covered across the media at large. Were we supposed to see this as anything other than an expression of sheer self-interest by those who in recent years have rewarded themselves so handsomely at everyone else’s expense? Who is most likely to gain from Britain being ‘Open for Business’? Was the hint of the loss of the low-wage, insecure jobs that employers increasingly demand really meant to scare us into obedience?

So I was extremely pleased to see a letter in The Independent (Keep business out of politics) objecting to the assumption that business leaders should have any more call on people’s voting instincts than anyone else.

This is the sixth richest nation on the planet, and yet we have a programme of austerity that is cutting into the marrow of our public realm. Whether the neglect is ideologically driven or not, civic amenities in the U.K. are a disgrace, and the state of the infrastructure (at least outside the capital) falls far short of that which I see in my frequent travels around other European countries. Support for people on ordinary means is evaporating, even as the rich force up the general cost of living; the ability to pool resources is being curtailed by pro-business legislation.

‘Good for business’ has entailed the de-recognition of representation for employees in large parts of the workplace, increasing job insecurity, reduced pension-provision and more. ‘Good for business’ has resulted in zero-hours contracts, and abuses of the minimum wage in areas such as the restaurant trade. Will Hutton’s most persuasive argument is that ‘good for business’ has led to the U.K. having the lowest levels of R&D in the developed world, while companies have largely become a means of extracting wealth for shareholders from existing assets, rather than investing in the economy of the future. If Hutton is correct, fewer than 20% of companies are actively involved in offering work experience or apprenticeships to young people.

‘Good for business’ has resulted in the U.K. economy becoming little more than a shareholder’s bargaining chip on the financial markets, further enriching the top 1% at the expense of the rest. It has meant the failure to pursue corporate and top-end tax avoidance. Having a friend whose company is currently being asset-stripped after an aggressive take-over, with his job at risk, I know this is not fiction. This is sharp contrast to many of our competitor-countries such s Germany and Switzerland (hardly a hotbed of leftism) who retain a much more balanced social contract.

And ‘good for business’ has seen the misappropriation of the education sector – whose moral remit remains, through the development of the intellect, the preparation of young people for all aspects of life – into a mere tool of economic policy, whose purpose is to deliver workplace-ready fodder to employers, in order to save them the expense of training them properly themselves.

But concurrent with the above, the teaching profession has been busy getting itself a bad name again – hardly conducive to balancing the sirens of the business faction. Once again, the spring conferences are advocating strike action, this time to boycott baseline tests of children entering the education system. While this is a sensitive issue, the old-left instinct to strike over every issue does nothing to dispel the public impression of teachers as old-left dinosaurs. I support the principle of representation – indeed want it enhanced to mirror the German system of a legal requirement for employee representation at Board level – but I despair of the actions the profession’s (un)representative bodies, which certainly do not reflect my outlook. More specifically, when most Union policy still expounds ‘progressive’ views, it makes it very difficult to know where to turn if one wants to stand up and be counted.

Nonetheless, I am proud to record that I will most definitely not be casting my vote for the good of business. I entered teaching because of my desire to live in a civilised society, which presents its people with maximum enfranchisement and the opportunity to live a good life – and my wish actively to contribute to that.  I see my role as building social capital – of which economic capital is only one part – one that if not balanced by other civic considerations leads to a fragmented and polarised society. Regrettably, it is becoming ever-clearer that this is precisely what is emerging in Britain as a result of the ideologies of the past few decades, and one does not need to be on the hard-left to see it.

The track record of the business-led society in Britain in recent times is one of raw self-interest. Too much of what has been allowed to happen (with political complicity) operates in the narrow interest of those who own it, with far too little sense of social obligation to create wealth for society at large. The signs of this are everywhere to be seen, from income disparities to my friend’s predicament, to the state of our roads. The demonisation of the public sector (mostly led by the business community) has eroded public provision to an unacceptable extent, while the beneficiaries of the business-friendly climate have increasingly bought themselves out of the society that hosts them. Where opportunity and investment do occur, they often come with a free-market price-tag that excludes many.

Will Hutton’s book offers some interesting solutions to this impasse, which I will discuss in a forthcoming post. This is not, however, to cast myself as just another old-leftie. I remember the decay and disruption of the Seventies and would not wish to repeat that. So I am not anti-business – but I am most definitely anti- tax-avoidance, low-wages, executive incomes, low-investment and asset-stripping. I am anti business having any special consideration within wider society. And I am most definitely anti the way in which that corner-stone of civil society – our education system – is increasingly being modelled along similar lines.

I am pro-democracy, pro-civil society and pro-fairness. I am also pro-opportunity – but not only of a narrowly economic sort. Good business actually means precisely those things too – because it would invest in a wider fair and prosperous society and this is it patently failing to do; what the signatories of the Telegraph letter actually meant was ‘good for profits’.

Before making either special claims on voters’ loyalties – or its regular attacks on those, notably in the public sector, whose humane values do not support its often-rapacious ways – the business sector needs to clean up its own act.