For what? (part one)


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.

The last product of civilisation

“To be able to fill leisure intelligently is the last product of civilisation and at present very few people have achieved this…” Bertrand Russell.

How we spend our leisure is not immune from general societal influences, and in surprising ways we can learn much about the nature of society from how people choose to spend their elective time. As Bertrand Russell observed, what we do with our free time is in many ways a significant challenge for society – and one which we still seem widely poor at addressing in any productive sense. The current answer seems to be “fill it with more work” – which I am not convinced makes for either a balanced life, or indeed effective workers. And the alternative, for most of the past hundred years, has become increasingly passive and commercialised.

My previous post outlined the ways in which hobbies can be seen as the epitome of ‘learning for learning’s sake’ – and I used a couple of examples of excellent model-making to show what determined individuals can achieve purely for the pleasure of it. In this post, I examine some of the less encouraging trends which may be seen as expressions of wider societal developments, and ask what we might learn from this as educators. I suggest that non-railway folk bear with the following and treat it as an extended metaphor!

Railway Modeller magazine has been around for about 60 years; I first took an edition in October 1974 (cost 35p), since when I have been an almost continuous reader. I still have some of my earliest editions, and it is interesting to compare them with the latest edition (cost £3.95).

Some changes, such as the shift to full colour simply reflect developments in publishing, and the amount of technology on offer blows the mind. Yes, you can now control your model trains from your mobile phone, or even by voice command…

What interests me more though, are the subtler changes. For example, the font-size has increased noticeably when compared with the dense pages that I used to peruse aged eleven. The articles tend to be shorter too, while the size and number of pictures have increased. The amount of advertising has increased dramatically too. From an educator’s point of view, the modelling press is clearly less demanding of the reader than it used to be.

More subjectively, the pitch of the text seems to have been lowered; gone are the erudite discussions of the arcana of real railway practice or demanding modelling techniques, to be replaced with tabloid-speak. Much of the writing is both basic and formulaic, and as I know from bitter experience, any attempt to write more distinctively will meet with liberal use of the editor’s blue pencil. Also largely gone are the complex architectural and engineering drawings that used to be provided monthly for the scratch model-maker; what we get instead are page upon page of nit-picking product reviews, not only for what is currently available but what is coming next. Many articles resemble extended adverts for certain products; the tone is resolutely one of a rather bland kind of ‘fun’ rather than anything more considered.

I’m afraid to say that the mean quality of the model making seems to have fallen too. Much of what we now see is simply the plonking of commercial products, and boring homogeneity has set in. Each month, I pass by much of what is presented, in search of something that has at least a little originality.  What constructional articles remain generally seem to assume a much lower level of technical competence than used to be the case. It’s not so much a matter of tolerating those still developing their skills, as being exposed to the completely artless – who for some reason still seem to think their efforts at retail therapy are worthy of national exposure; in a small way, it’s part of the celebrity famous-for–five-minutes culture.

Ironically, the quality, range and detail of the commercial models (all now made in China) has gone through the roof in recent years – as has the price. A fairly standard Hornby model locomotive now retails for well over £100. Then there is the cost of all the advanced electronics. The effect of this has been to change railway modelling from a creative hobby into an expensive branch of retail consumption. This is all the more evident when one compares these exquisite commercial products with the crudeness of the model settings they are actually being run on. As purchasing power has increased, so proportionately have self-help practical skill, knowledge and creativity seemingly decreased. What we are seeing here is the usurping of an eccentric, homespun, individualistic craft-hobby by just another aspect of retail therapy, the modeller being reduced from an autonomous, intrinsically motivated individual to a mere shopper, passively consuming what the market conspires to provide.

What’s more, unlike in 1974, when there was one magazine, there are now five – all pushing the same homogenous material each month – a true triumph of quantity over quality. A further development has been the emergence of an online community, and this gives much wider exposure to what people are doing in the hobby. Unfortunately, the general level is about as far from Pempoul as can be imagined, most models resembling giant toy train sets than anything more realistic. Regrettably, one sees vast numbers of comments of the type “…far beyond my capabilities…” – and I know from others’ experience that this divide between the (perceived) expert few and the vicarious, almost sycophantic majority is not restricted to railway modelling. The growth mind set seems to have been usurped by a fixed one, where people start from the assumption that they can’t do any better, while a few individuals seem to have almost become online hobby-superstars.

As an educator, I find this concerning. We seem to be institutionalising ignorance and helplessness, and it appears to be infiltrating even the most democratic, self-help orientated of activities – our hobbies; of course, it suits commerce to have it so – but are commercial profit margins really what hobbies are about? Sadly, it is by no means uncommon for those who speak out in favour of higher aspirations to be labelled as ‘elitist’ and subjected to the abuse found on many internet forums. Likewise, the one journal that still refuses to lower its sights is also widely dismissed as elitist.

Here, we have a wider philosophical point: what are those who do aspire to high standards to do? While a hobby should of course be all about people doing absolutely what they enjoy, there is a world of difference between someone ‘playing trains’ á la Scalextric and someone painstakingly crafting an accurate scenario. Those who aim high are, if they are not careful, stigmatised for doing so, and then are effectively forced to hive themselves off into an enclave which then only reinforces the impression. Here, we have an uncomfortable aspect of human psychology at work: the tendency to agglomerate into tribes, and to excoriate anyone who chooses to be different. This is particularly regrettable when the dominant ‘tribe’ tends to be founded on ignorance and low expectations. Excellence, it seems, upsets a lot of people.

Far from being a unifying force, such pressures can result in division; on the one hand we have the ‘great unwashed’, pandered to in their ignorance by the vested interests of the mass market, but without access to the higher skills and individuality of mind that are the true source of self-realisation – and on the other, ignored minorities who may struggle to endure in a mass-society, given the waywardness of their interests: a microcosm of contemporary society at large.

This brings us to a second irony: the mass market has indeed democratised the hobby. All-comers can now aspire to owning models of a quality previously only available to the wealthy few who could afford to commission the best engineering; on the other hand, this may well have lowered the general standards and aspirations of the hobby as a whole. It has certainly made the ‘special’ rarer. It has also taken power out of the hands of the individual and placed it in the large businesses that provide the products. Which is preferable? Just as in education, widening the market has not really led to the mass-availability of best-quality (was that ever a realistic dream?), but simply the dumbing-down of the mean – while those sufficiently determined or with sufficient resources have hived themselves off into perceived cliques, if only for self-preservation.

I am certainly not blaming the education sector for this: what I am describing is the result of far wider trends in the way our needs are met and the world organised. But I would argue that the effect is indisputable: the relative decline in the ability of the ‘small’ individual to plough his or her own furrow, and an increasing pressure to conform to externally-defined norms – even where this results in a lowering of quality or diversity.

This is where education does have significance. The education world itself has been subject to the same pressures of standardisation and mass-production, and many parts of it have chosen to co-operate rather than resist. The ‘product’ we offer is today more homogenised than at any time in the past; does that guarantee minimum standards or destroy high ones? It has become harder for individual teachers to practise in they way they choose, and to infuse their work with their own values rather than imposed ones. They are being forced to play toy trains, even if they are fine modellers at heart. Quite a few have chosen to leave, or to hive off into the private sector where more flexibility arguably remains.

And what of the pupils? When we homogenise their experience in the same way, when we give the impression that education is simply the passage along a mass-consumption conveyor belt, what are we doing to their perception of the world? When we define targets for learning that remove the scope for individual thinking and interpretation are we unconsciously reinforcing the conformity effect? When they do see excellence, do they see it as something they can achieve, or something unattainable?

When we emphasise pupils’ positions as de facto consumers of educational qualifications, what are the deep impacts on their perceptions? When schools endorse the commercial world (in ways they used not to do) by selling overtly-branded food and drink, or by playing the latest pop music over the tannoy during Christmas lunch, we are sending powerful educational messages, not the least of which is to reinforce young people’s central perceptions of themselves as passive consumers of stuff, rather than active agents of change with a potential for autonomous self-direction.

As I have mentioned before, I have encountered numerous students who, when asked about their free time either reply that they spend all their time on their school work – or else look at me in blinking incomprehension.  I do think that the current educational climate is partly to blame for that. That, and the overwhelming dominance of the T.V. in their lives. This is not the same everywhere, as I have observed with Swiss students, many of whom have impressive lists of personal interests and achievements – so why are some cultures seemingly less passive than others?

This homogenisation is not the fault of education – but education is surely one of the most powerful tools that society has with which to shape itself. When the effects of these trends become apparent in a field as obscure as railway modelling, it becomes pretty clear what is going on. If any blame does fall on the education world, I suspect it is for emphasising education purely as a means to work and money, and downplaying its wider benefits; that at least could conceivably be a culture-specific factor.

Do we really wish the education system to perpetuate this – or to challenge it?

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.

The effects of management: an open letter to Ian Lynch

Some days ago, ‘Disappointed Idealist’ posted a long polemic about the shortcomings of educational management. I commented on what I felt was a heartfelt and perceptive observation, since when a dialogue opened up between Ian Lynch and me on the comments section. I don’t think it is reasonable to conduct an extended discussion on the comments board of someone else’s blog, so I have moved here to continue my response. The following is therefore a specific reply to Ian Lynch’s comments, in effect an open letter. The previous discussion can be found here.


Have you come across Margaret Heffernan’s book Wilful Blindness? If not, I suggest you read it. It might explain some of my doubts about the efficacy (or should that be sanctity?) of management. I suggest you also look at Obliquity by John Kay, and Drive by Daniel Pink for why the current approach is wrong and doomed to failure. Details of all of these can be found on my reading page.

They represent, of course, just one world-view, but I think we can probably agree that management is a very complex matter. I will repeat: my objections are not some kind of a grudge. Indeed I have always tried to act in a constructive and professional way for the management of my school; they deserve respect for the difficult job they have undertaken. But equally, no one makes people take those jobs. Too many of them may have been taken due to personal ambition rather than aptitude. The view that you can do more good from higher up is, in my view, deeply flawed.

My own early attempts at entering management were, admittedly,  unsuccessful; there may have been many reasons for that, but with the benefit of a lot of hindsight, I am greatly relieved that I never did so. I think I was not ready for it at the age when it was expected that one ought to be looking for junior management roles, and somewhere inside I knew that. I will admit that I would also find it very difficult to suppress my own strongly-held views and experiences just for the sake of holding the management line. Maybe, in the conventional sense, that made me unsuitable.

Teaching is a job where long service delivers perspectives that simply are not available to new entrants, no matter how talented they may be, and particularly if they flit from school to school. How much bad management is a result of people being pushed to take roles for which they have insufficient experience or perspective? Decades of doing the job throw a very different light on what is important and what is not. Young turks may not see this, instead being more anxious about making their mark. So much damage is done by actions that have little to do with education and everything to do with demonstrating the so-called effectiveness of the manager. As you say, this is made all the worse by the accountability trap.

My objection to management is not over-idealistic; it is born from two very practical considerations which relate to the assumptions made not only about its own potency, but about the real nature of the world we inhabit:

  1. Management as a concept is predicated on the belief that it is possible to control things centrally. This in turn is based on the view that things happen for identifiable cause-and-effect reasons. While this may be partly true in the material/mechanical world, it is not as directly so for the behavioural world, even in the commercial sector (think bankers’ behaviour). The causal density of human behaviour and interactions is so high that it is effectively impossible to identify, let alone anticipate, the actual effects of one’s actions. Therefore, management is doomed to failure because it is simply attempting too complex a task,  to co-ordinate closely the real behaviour and motives of a hundred or more adults, let alone the children. This is all too visible in the amount of time people spend trying to circumvent imposed constraints on their actions and trying to cover their backsides from the perceived or real consequences of not doing what management wants. This is not productive activity.
  2. In any organisation, management is a construct. It does not produce anything of itself; it is not the core activity of any organisation. It therefore constantly needs to reinvent reasons for its own existence – and these largely consist of coming up with new ways of telling other people what to do and then checking up on them afterwards. Sometimes that may be helpful or necessary, but it all too easily becomes a self-serving activity the key purpose of which is to preserve its own raison d’etre, let alone the prestige of those in those roles. As I mentioned before, it sets up too many conflicts of interest ever to be otherwise.


I am an educated, thoughtful and conscientious individual, and I do not go to work to be patronised, or told what to think and do with no reason,  like a mindless automaton. My loyalty is to be won, not demanded. I expect to work hard, but I do not expect to have the job made more difficult than it needs to be. I have a life beyond work to which I am entitled, and I do not expect to be condemned or criticised for protecting it. I do not expect to have it gratuitously invaded by people who seem to think they have unlimited rights to my time.

You may argue that such things are inevitable; be that as it may, the effect in terms of morale, let alone dehumanisation of the workplace, is still the same. You suggest that we need to accept that which we cannot change, but I see no reason why I should accept the distress and demoralisation of either me or my colleagues just because it seems that not much can be done about it because I am not powerful within my school. That is not the same as claiming that such things are done deliberately – though there are times, even in a good school like mine, when it comes close. There are some things that are simply wrong – and the way that too many people get treated in the workplace is one of them. It is not compatible with a modern, civilised country.

As for doing something about it, I have spent my career fully engaged in professional dialogue both within the school and more widely – but you cannot discuss things with people who are unwilling to listen, and who in effect consider they know better because they are somehow ‘more important’. You cannot change things from the inside if you cannot gain access to the inside because your ideas don’t ‘fit’. I have acted in numerous roles in an attempt to argue certain cases – always with the same conclusion: the default position of management seems to be to listen to nobody but itself – and to do what it wants regardless. Ironically, increased local freedoms only seem to have made this worse.

No matter how inevitable you think this is, the effect is too often a destructive culture within organisations whereby too much effort is expended on in-fighting and the them-and-us mentality which often exists. While there undoubtedly are individual teachers who hold grudges, I am genuinely not one of them – and I still feel I can say that over nearly thirty years, the divisions have been created more from above than below.

We would be much better off accepting the real limitations that exist on the ability of a few often-remote individuals to control the minds and actions of others; it is the inability of management to accept this fact that causes a lot of its problems.

Management would be more effective, if it accepted that its job was to establish minimum expectations, go about winning hearts and minds by creating a good ethos and then allowing people to operate within those basic expectations with as much freedom as possible. Tom Sherrington wrote as much a few months ago. Certainly there is a role to weed out the genuinely bad, but the constant drive to impose uniformity on people does nothing more than deny human variability and individuality and is guaranteed to cause dissatisfaction and demotivation.

You may claim this is idealistic – but there are countries where it works, such as Switzerland (as I have written before in these pages). I have seen teachers working in a genuinely collegiate manner, with a minimal flat management structure for overall coordination. It works fine – and it also used to work in this country – until the point when education caught management sickness and it became the only real route for ambitious teachers to ‘prove’ their worth. I have also worked in leaderless teams at times – and nothing ground to a halt. Belgium ran itself for many months without a government, while the Soviet Union collapsed under its management’s inability to control its citizens’ lives sufficiently closely to command their compliance. That is the reality of reality – it is oblique and polycentric; it does not work to centralised command, no matter how much some people might want it to.

The biggest obstacle to improving this situation in this country is the confirmation bias that tells managers that the only solution to poor management is more management. Certainly we need some – but not the debilitating parasite that it has been allowed to become. Until they accept that management is no more indispensible and no less fallible than the rest of us, we are not going to get far.

Pulling wings from flies?

While I was stuck at Basel Airport with my sixth form, it seems as though a sizeable number of other teachers were stuck in a tent somewhere in Berkshire listening to the Secretary of State for Education, amongst others, at the Wellington Festival of Education. Despite my interest in matters educational, I think I generally prefer to spend my time doing it to talking about it – and when it comes to my weekends, preferably something else entirely, so far as is permissible with a professional conscience. So maybe being stranded in a Swiss airport with my – thankfully – very patient teenagers at the end of a brilliant week, was not such a bad lot after all.

I think one blogger gave the game away when (s)he referred to the attendees as ‘education enthusiasts’ – which I am most definitely not. Like many, I try my best do a professional, high-quality job of work – but I save my personal enthusiasms for other things entirely, even if they do creep into the trips I organise…That said, it has to be admitted that it sounds as though there were some interesting sessions at the festival. (I wonder, by the way, whether the medical profession, upon which some seem to want to model teaching ever more closely, has ‘festivals’ of medicine…) What strikes me from the reports and blogs that I have read is how much of the discussion at such events  is only about one half of Education – teaching. While the ‘L’ word clearly does get mentioned a great deal, it seems to figure mostly as a consequence of the actions of teachers, some of whom sound increasingly, scarily like brain surgeons when compared with my humble scratchings and gropings for classroom (or Alpine) enlightenment.

However, for all the excitement that such events clearly generate, I can’t help wondering what they really have to do with groups of young people being exposed to new aspects of the world in which they have landed. I still cannot reach a satisfactory answer to what the people taking part in such festivals think education is for – and so long as we can’t agree on a common understanding of that, I am not convinced that all the high-fallutin’ stuff will make very much difference. So long as we cannot agree what we are trying to achieve, all of the discussions about outcomes, effect sizes, retention rates, intervention techniques and the rest will remain academic. The only thing required to derail someone’s neatly-assembled research is dissent over what constitute desirable outcomes. If you consider education to be deeper than exam results, then pass-rates are only of so much use; if you teach a subject whose function is to develop core skills, you will probably not agree with someone whose teaching is about developing reasoned judgments or factual breadth. If you consider that education is simply for employment, then you will likely be unimpressed by those who seek wider personal development – or who take their students on weeks’ trips to Switzerland. And none of it can be proven right or wrong.

So much of the debate seems to make the basic errors of conflating the mystique of ‘evidence’ with good old personal preference. ‘Evidence’ is what one has to support one’s own case; anecdote or hunches are what those with whom you disagree  make do with. Except that even the belief that data-derived evidence is the way forward is, in the final reckoning a hunch that is no more provable in educational or philosophical terms than anything else.

Unfortunately, there are some things in this world that simply are not provable – and no amount of wishing otherwise will change that. Ultimately, who can ‘prove’ anything that education is for? There is no way to prove beyond doubt that education is ‘for’ anything at all: it is purely and simply a human construct , and as such it simply cannot be externally, objectively validated in the manner of the natural sciences. I cannot prove or measure – or even fully define – the learning that took place in Switzerland last week, for all that I know and saw that it did. And why, really, do I need to? Isn’t the fact that it did – and that the students are still raving about the experience – enough? Why need it matter to any educationalist or researcher?

Because of this, we are unlikely ever to arrive at a consensus that allows us to agree common benchmarks for ‘success’ in the way that, say, medics can. It is relatively easy to identify when a patient has been cured – even if the causality is not always obvious – but when one cannot even agree the objective, consensus is going to be a non-starter.

So I’m bemused (and, if I’m honest depressed), by the obsession with proof of learning; it seems to be a fundamental misunderstanding of that experience/process to need to go looking for such things. I contemplated asking my students to write a follow-up for their visit – but decided against it. It would only have been to satisfy my own curiosity (vanity?) and the process of doing so may well have killed the memory for them. They are more than capable of working out for themselves what they got from it, if they need to.

I think it is clear that the need for proof derives from Ofsted’s previous delusions – but it seems to have left the legacy of a view of education as a zero-sum game. Again, the only alternative explanations I can find for this is an obsession with exam results (despite the fact that many people increasingly seem to accept the questionable link between progress, attainment and long-term learning) – or that it is an expression of unhealthy degrees of teacher-neurosis.

As I tried to show with my posts from Switzerland, the real, significant learning experiences of young people are (or at least can be) significantly broader than the issues under discussion at the various conferences would suggest. We would also do well to remember that teachers do not cause learning – it is a natural and continuous process that we can only attempt to direct and amplify. That is not to say we shouldn’t try to optimise what we do, but while there is such a degree of self-referentialism in the profession, I fear our perception of what we actually do will remain massively distorted. Much of the learning in Switzerland came not as  a result of my actions, even though ultimately I did create the possibility for it to occur.

There is absolutely nothing wrong, in my view, in accepting learning for the amorphous, ephemeral and individual thing that it is; in fact, I shudder at the thought of a world where the imperfections of the process had been so ironed out that all we were left to do was programme (indoctrinate?) children with the specified doctrine of the moment. I can accept that reasoned thought is superior to vested-interest dogma – but taken to their logical conclusions, the consequences of evidence-based education would be deeply unethical – and a betrayal of what it really can do for people – if only we could accept it on its own terms.