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Lessons Learned

I have been reading Brian Lightman’s book Lessons Learned: A life in education.

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Brian was a colleague of mine for a few years in the early 1990s and I am indebted to him for both his support early in my career (where much else was lacking), and more recently for encouraging the publication of my own book The Great Exception.

In the meantime, he went on, via several headships, to become General Secretary of the Association of School and College Leaders (ASCL).

His book provides a fascinating insight into his experiences as he ascended to the top of the profession. The memoirs of a head teacher should be required reading for all in education: both those in the classroom for the appreciation it can bring of the breadth and challenges of the role – something it seems that few others bother to communicate to their staff – and those in political positions for a view of just how complex and demanding a job it is.

From the lower rungs, it is easy to criticise ‘management’, and I have done my share of this, although I have always tried to tackle the issue rather than the person. I have also identified ‘management’ as being more than just that found at school level. But it is also fair to say that from a classroom perspective, management hubris often ensured it was not clear just where some of the impositions and conflicts that we struggled with were originating from. Those in such positions would do well to remember which parts of the anatomy are most visible from beneath…

One might argue it would be in their own favour for school managements to be more open with their staff about the imposed conflicts they face, rather than (as was my experience) trying to present an invincible, non-negotiable stance which was certainly not interested in the thoughts or ideas of mere classroom teachers. By sometimes claiming total authority, school managements have not only deprofessionalised their staff, but also in effect claimed ownership of many of the education system’s failings that may not actually have been their fault. That said, in many cases, it has clearly been school managements’ interpretations of political diktats that have caused the real problems.

While Lightman naturally comes at these issues from a very different, more strategic perspective, it is reassuring that the former leader of a Head teachers’ union corroborates many of my own views on issues seen from the classroom, such as:

  • the need for individuals to be able to develop their own good practice
  • the need for schools to support their staff rather than micro-manage or otherwise demean them
  • the need for more a pluralistic appreciation of the nature and aims of education
  • the need to reduce the narrow emphasis on exam results as the sole driver for both teaching and schools as a whole
  • the desirability of extended professional development for teachers that aims at a wider professionalism than basic classroom skills or production-line techniques.

I do however lack his apparent belief that complex policy and control structures really are the best means to achieve higher standards. I doubt that they actually have the ability to reach to the level of individual classrooms with anything more than a restricting effect. And we still haven’t really pinned down what ‘better education’ actually means.

While I have certainly experienced the impacts of different styles of school management, I have also seen far flatter structures being very successful elsewhere. If we had a highly-educated and trained, fully professionalised work force (in spirit and approach rather than just intent) in this country, such as is found in Finland, Switzerland and elsewhere, there would simply be much less need for towering hierarchies to drive everything. To be fair, Lightman does hint at this. The lack of such is the fault of education policy over decades.

The later stages of the book recount Lightman’s encounters with the political establishment during the last Labour years and then the 2010 Coalition-era government. It is not edifying reading.

This account of the means by which education policy was made: the sheer prejudice brought to bear – not least on the achievements of prior administrations, the refusal to credit professional expertise and insight, the sometimes ad-hoc, opportunistic nature of policy-making, and the sheer, arrogant cronyism of the system, makes depressing reading. It has to be said without much pleasure, that all of these traits were, according to Lightman, far worse under the Conservatives than the other parties.

Sometimes it is the small and non-education related points that are enlightening: for example, the observation that while most parties’ annual party conferences are packed with pressure-groups’ stalls, the Conservative one mostly features up-market traditional country-wear.

The impression Lightman gained is that this party represents a regressive, privileged and condescending – yet immensely powerful – force within society that has little understanding of, or interest in, any world-view except its own. And it still believes in its own entitlement to govern.

For someone who is increasingly more widely critical of the ways in which the U.K. is governed, this blows a major hole in the claim that this country is well governed, for all the veneer of authority and control that the Establishment can still put on. And in the light of the nation’s current difficulties, if this account of the education department is representative of approaches in (Conservative?) government more widely, one can only fear for the nation’s future.

Back with teaching, in my own way, I believe I attempted to develop a form of professionalism close to that which Lightman describes. My own approach attempted a blend of the best of proven traditional techniques with the more promising and workable aspects of newer ideas. I tried to educate young people rather than just prepare them to jump hoops. And this blog is testament to this teacher’s attempts to widen his perspective on his professional practice.

It was hard work as it often involved swimming against the tide of a system that eventually burned me out, threw me out – and stamped on the remains. And whatever the perceived or real weaknesses of this particular individual, I now represent just one more experienced, committed teacher lost to a system that can ill afford it – against which Lightman rails.

In very many ways, the education system needs to become much less dogmatic in its approach – and much more trusting of professionals to do a good job. Lightman’s experiences in Germany (he is a linguist) reflect my own in Switzerland in this respect.

All in all, a thought-provoking account of a life in education that does much to cast light on layers of the structure not normally visible to those in the classroom, but one that does not lose sight of the fundamental importance of the grassroots nature of the profession.

‘Andy’

Here, to start the year, is a good news story about something other than my own recent travails…

In the late autumn, we needed to have some interior works done. I contacted a small company that was getting good reports on my town’s local Facebook page. In the days before the owner visited, I pondered the name, and gradually came to a certain suspicion. When the young man called, my thoughts were strengthened, and in the following email negotiations, I established what I suspected. He was a former pupil of mine, now aged thirty and operating in an area some way removed from his childhood home.

The boy – we’ll call him Andy – had been in one of the lower ability sets when I taught him in Year 7 and 8, nearly twenty years ago. His extended family was one of the more troubled local families, whose offspring had caused some difficulty. He himself was a more likeable lad, but susceptible to wind-up from other pupils and sometimes hyper-active in class. I nonetheless patiently built up a good relationship with him, and he worked well for me for two years, before moving to a different school, and then another. From what I can gather, this was because he was increasingly in need of new starts, and in time the family moved to a different area entirely. I don’t know how he did in his exams, but in his own words, “I was not exactly one of your all A* candidates was I?”

Andy did three days’ good work for us, during which a little more of the interim came to light. On leaving school at sixteen, he had eventually gained work refitting London Underground stations – mostly on night shifts. He did this for nearly a decade, while putting himself through five years in college during the day, to gain City & Guilds qualifications in three trades, and saving hard to set up his own business.

In the past few years, this is what he has done, and he now employs up to ten people in varying capacities. He has a smart van, branded work wear, a growing reputation – and as much work as he wants, without even needing to advertise. He has taken advice from his accountant on financial management of a company and is also gaining a lot of insurance repair work. I would call him a resounding success.

As E=MC²andallthat recently mentioned, recent research suggests that the ‘teacher factor’ in children’s life chances accounts for between 0 and 14% of educational outcomes – not the 100% that teachers have repeatedly been told. In the case of ‘Andy’, the total teacher factor amounted, I would suggest, to not very much at all, beyond basic literacy and numeracy. In my own case, I strongly suspect that any effect I had was personal, not academic. And yet the guy is doing really well for himself, and in his own terms (and mine) is a success. Years of ear-bashing by educational theorists from Hattie to batty (who was on SLT at my former school) insisted that we teachers were the lynchpin of children’s future lives; that they “only have one chance” and that failure in school will inevitably lead to a life condemned to the eternal damnation of not being ‘people like us’.

Well, ‘Andy’ is the living proof that this ain’t necessarily so – and that most of what we were told was nothing more than further emotional blackmail from management to get teachers to do what they were told. Education would be well-rid of such ridiculous hubris: to claim entire sovereignty over and responsibility for the outcomes of people’s lives is beyond arrogant: it is preposterous – and the main effect, I suspect, is nothing more than to pile further emotional strain on teachers. Because I have met very few pupils (and even parents) who ever believed it.

To suggest that teachers have complete lives in their gift is absurd; the best they can hope for is to dip a paddle judiciously into the current of people’s lives as they pass, and create some beneficial eddies. In ‘Andy’s’ case, compared with his own achievements, I am not sure we even did that. For him, the best lesson of all was learned though the struggle he had, and determination he invested to make a success of his own life, well away from the meddling of teachers and their academic targets.

On the score-sheet of his/my former school, and formal education generally, I suspect ‘Andy’ is chalked up as a ‘fail’ – but that he most certainly is not. It makes me all the more pleased that he is doing so well.

Disorientation

Why am I publicly documenting my mental health problems? Partly as catharsis – but mostly because those glossy adverts for teaching enrage me so much. I think it is necessary to record the potential risks of falling for them…

A new routine has almost established itself; it doesn’t involve getting up and going to work every morning. The last four months are a blur, and I can’t quite believe that the spring flowers are already appearing. A sense of disorientation is setting in, and good though it is not to have to drag myself out of bed at an unearthly hour, it’s worrying.

There are days when I feel like my old self has almost returned – except for the wearying, racing mind, like a car engine revving in neutral. On the other days, it feels as though someone has thrown sand into the closely-meshed gears of my mind. And then there’s the fatigue and the disproportionate angst about every small thing. Such polarity is not yet a recovery, for all that I feel like a fraud on the better days.

The temptation is to make up for lost time when the brain permits, to resume some of the actions of a fully-functioning adult – with the predictable consequences a day or two later. And the unspoken opinion of others seems to be that I am not being as coherent at it feels. A rather fraught session with my talking therapist yesterday suggests that may be right.

It also seems as though my hopes of getting the assurances I need from School are receding; it was pointed out to me that to concede what I need them to would risk opening themselves up to legal action, were I so-inclined (I’m not). Such is the cynicism of modern employment law.

But the racing mind cannot help but chew endlessly over the future; a resolution must happen at some point. The advice is that any return to the classroom would inevitably involve the scrutiny that I know is so unjustified, which triggered the current impasse. I cannot conceive of going through the stress of that process again, even without the feelings of injustice that accompany it. And yet no one remotely seems to think that the result can be annulled, for all that my colleagues keep telling me I have been harshly treated. I am not prepared to have to keep justifying myself in this way, least of all with one hand tied behind my back. Not when the actions of others were so unjustified.

I’ve never been particularly motivated by money, though I do enjoy my comforts. But cutting our household income in half is not an appealing thought, for all that health has to come first. Maybe there is life beyond teaching, but I can’t yet see what it might be. It’s a tough but reliable job, and that has to count for something in uncertain times.

On the other hand, a quick calculation arrives at the top figure under £15 per hour post-tax for my actual  hours worked. Somewhat over double the minimum wage – and I’m expensive for a teacher. One should allow a bit for the extra paid holiday, but it’s still unimpressive. My therapist charges £35 an hour; my G.P. earns double what I do. I don’t begrudge her a penny of it – but she still doesn’t have the unique pressures of the classroom to deal with.

£15 for every lesson taught. 50 pence per pupil per hour. Well, I guess it’s financially efficient. I don’t mind teaching for that; it provides enough for the life we want. But £15 an hour for all the other c**p that the job now involves? For the bullying and micro-management? For the stress of recent years? For the particular upset of the last four months? For the hours of personal and family life given up for the job? For the lack of appreciation and trust? For a totally avoidable broken brain?

Nowhere near enough.

Quality will out – part 2

Much was made recently about the fact that so many of our Olympic successes were independently educated. The implication, as always, was that this shows the lack of wider opportunity in our country. Maybe there are many other potential medal-winners out there – but a little-discussed possibility is that if those people had not had the kind of education they did, they might not have been successes either. If you attribute so much influence to schooling, you cannot avoid this argument.

The blogger Muggedbyreality made an excellent point recently, which took my own thinking further:

“…to create a strong, flourishing academic culture in a school or a subject department or a class requires a disproportionate, perhaps excessive number of persons of an ‘academic’ inclination.

…An intellectual environment seems to need a critical mass of staff and pupils who revel in intellectual pursuits to get an intellectual buzz… even in schools with a genuinely comprehensive intake and thus enough students to create that flourishing intellectual environment, it is missing.”

https://muggedbyrealitycom.wordpress.com/2016/09/17/critical-mass/

This is my experience entirely. Whatever the arguments about selection, it seems to me that the effect of comprehensive schools has been to level people to the middle. The most probable outcome when a wide range of individuals is put through a common mould, is that there will be a tendency to a mid-point norm. This may well provide uplift at the bottom – but it comes at the expense of the greatest development of the most talented. In 1980, when I entered the sixth form, my grammar was turned into a sixth form college; its character changed almost overnight. No doubt some would argue that this was a good thing – but it was very clear to those who knew it before, that the academic ethos was instantly diluted by the simple arrival and behaviour of many who did not share that outlook.

This is precisely what I feel has happened to the U.K. over the past several decades. For all that diversity is supposedly celebrated, the common culture of this country has become ever more centred around the middle to low brow. Many educated people now have tastes and preferences no different from the less thoughtful mainstream. It has almost become a point of embarrassment to admit to anything more. I am not saying that they should not participate in that culture – but the number who also retain a diverse perspective, and who have the capacity to supplement their diet of soaps, celebrity and shopping with more demanding interests and activities, seems to have shrunk. And that is without the perceived intolerant eccentrics like me who would prefer their own diet to remain entirely unpolluted with junk. In other words, the pursuit and appreciation of challenging (but rewarding) high quality seems largely to have been lost, except perhaps when it only requires the flex of a credit card. And with it have been devalued the common cultural norms and values of the entire nation. I place part of the responsibility for that at the door of the education system.

I probably appear hugely intolerant here, but I want to make a point. A nation comprises vast numbers of people, all with their own world-view and preferences. But that nation’s collective civil and cultural life is the sum of all its parts, and perhaps more than that. If there are few willing or able to uphold the more exacting end of the spectrum, the whole suffers as a result. If no one is prepared to be intransigent in the name of high quality, then it will simply disappear.

The casualty is then the collective standard of culture, thought, discourse, innovation and achievement of the nation. I would argue there is enough evidence to suggest that those things have declined in Britain, at least to claim that education has failed to act as a brake on other destructive pressures. I realise that there are very many wider factors that are influencing such trends – but my point is that at least for some, education ought to be providing a counter-balance to the mind-rot, and in the majority of the non-selective sector, I strongly suspect that it is not.

In the meantime, those who do still worry about these things perhaps perceive their last refuge to be in the remaining grammar schools – or the fee-paying sector.

In terms of the general health of a country’s society, culture and wider welfare – to say nothing of individual preferences – I find it hard to accept that it is in the collective interest for the brightest and best not to be developed as far as they can be, for the sake of a rather low-grade equality. This is certainly not the approach that I see a number of our (rather more successful) neighbouring countries taking.

However, this is not in itself an argument for selection; in an ideal world, such aspirations would indeed be achievable universally. But the reality is that this does not happen; people are too diverse to be catered for so specifically all under one roof. Academic divisiveness is a distraction: the real issue ought to be whether specialised institutions of all sorts could achieve a broader but higher-quality education for more people than the current one-size-fits-all approach. Likewise, the mechanism for selection is nothing more than another distraction. I suspect that selection’s opponents well know it.

As Muggedbyreality says, it takes a surprisingly  large number of like-minded people to create a culture. I suspect that s/he is right: I work in a school that has a significantly positively-skewed ability range. I encounter lots of clever children – but very few who are academic. There are some – but nowhere near enough to influence the whole. This is not surprising, since they come in many cases from not especially academic backgrounds, and in any case, in most populations, I suspect the numbers of parents wishing or able to project such values is small. Institutional culture and values are things that schools have to instil – and in my experience, very few comprehensives successfully do so in academic terms, even where they claim otherwise.  Again there are too many reasons for this to discuss here, though my scrawling over the past three years has covered many.

In some ways, comprehensive education has indeed been the leveller that its proponents wanted. The trouble is, it had no alternative but to level as many down as up. I’m not sure that’s what they had in mind –at least I hope it isn’t. The idea of grammar (i.e. academic) schools for all is a practical non-starter. Too many people simply do not set sufficient store by high intellectual quality ever to attain the necessary critical mass. I should add that exactly the same claim could be made with respect to schools of technical excellence, and other specialist needs.

This is the blind spot of those who oppose selection: it is not (principally) a matter of securing ‘unfair’ advantage; it is a matter of perceived cultural quality. For the most resolute of selection opponents, the principal purpose of education is social engineering; they often see teachers as class warriors. I’m not suggesting that tackling disadvantage is unimportant, but shift to a different paradigm, and the argument shifts too.

Whether the reality of selection matches that perception is almost immaterial, though my memories of both grammar school and local independents are indeed ones of integrity. As a grammar school pupil, I only visited secondary moderns a couple of times, but their different ‘feel’ has stayed with me. It was not a matter of superiority, but it was definitely different. In cultural terms, I am afraid that comprehensives are more like ‘secondary moderns for all’ than grammar schools, and I don’t see how it could be otherwise. Neither is this even a matter of ability, so much as attitude. The problem stems not so much from the weak-but-willing, as the indifferent and the disaffected. Putting everyone together solves nothing; the lowest common denominator tends to prevail – and if it doesn’t, those who cannot meet the standards and norms risk feeling all the more excluded.

And this does not only apply to pupils: I increasingly feel that some of my professional tribulations over the years have come from working in a culture to which I am not entirely suited, and much of my more dubious workload has actually been generated as schools battle to control the problems and tensions inherent within the comprehensive system. I chose to express my faith in that system by working in it notwithstanding the personal cost – but were I to choose now, with the benefit of hindsight I would make a different decision. There are plenty of teachers who thrive in the comprehensive setting – but there are those like me, as with pupils, who can do their best work somewhere else. To ignore their needs is no more acceptable than to do the same to any other group.

David Willets, the former trade minister, writing in Prospect magazine says research shows that non-graduate incomes are higher in areas where there are lots of high-calibre graduates than elsewhere. That spreads opportunity – but it is not necessarily an argument for making everyone a graduate. High quality has a more widely beneficial impact by raising norms.

The fact that some people insist on high quality, and will go out of their way in order to secure it is both their reasonable right, and in fact of benefit to more than themselves. In cultural terms, their effect permeates to the standards of wider society. If one eliminates such people from the wider mix on the grounds that not everyone wishes to emulate them, the effect on the whole is disproportionately large. On the other hand, distributing them widely but thinly removes the critical mass necessary to sustain them. The same applies in education, whether we are considering the needs of the academic minority or any other.

Is this really such a desirable template for a thriving modern society?

Ships in the night

They say you shouldn’t mix business and pleasure. But a couple of weeks ago, a conversation occurred with a few young colleagues concerning our respective home lives. I was brought up sharp by the perceptions they expressed about my own life outside school: to say they were wide of the mark is an understatement! This is not entirely surprising as I live nearly thirty miles from the school, and I only socialise occasionally with colleagues as a result. And being a somewhat private person, I also do not participate in their ongoing social media conversation.

I was reminded that in many ways, work-place colleagues often remain as ships in the night. We spend up to half our waking lives (superficially) together, and yet often know each other barely at all. In the case of teachers, this is made more extreme by the strange fact that although we spend our days surrounded by people, in some ways it is a rather solitary existence. Unlike say, office workers, much of our working day is actually spend alone with the pupils rather than with colleagues – and when this is not the case, moments are mainly used for professional catch-ups for which time barely exists else-when.

It’s probably a good thing that teaching encompasses a diversity of souls – after all, we need to cater for even more diversity when it comes to the children – and I am not actually as intolerant as I will be dictator-sounding here. But having spent social time with several groups of teachers recently, I am left wondering if there are any substantial values or outlooks – other than our profession – that we share at all. Or more to the point: are there any common qualities that all teachers ought to manifest?

It is true that societies such as Britain’s are becoming more diverse – but in some ways, the small-‘c’ mainstream public culture seems more uniform than ever. Far from being inspirational individuals, the societising trend seems to be making even educators more homogenous by the year. And it is not homing in on the one thing that I believe should unite all teachers: the life of the mind.

Having just conceded that it can be very difficult to know one’s colleagues, I am still left with the impression that the teacher role-model is – how shall I put it – becoming increasingly little more than a bolt-on that people assume at the classroom door. A life of the mind does not imply that we should all be alike, in fact quite the opposite. As The Independent’s erstwhile strap line used to say, “Great minds don’t think alike”! But there seem to be fewer and fewer really distinctive individuals within teaching, something that (or at least the perception of which) has probably not been helped by conformist career-ambition or the drive for professional compliance within schools. And yet it is distinctive individuals, more than corporate clones, that children often find inspiring.

For example, the recent political turmoil generated more staffroom discussion of political matters than usual – in other words, some rather than none at all. And yet many of those I encountered professed no knowledge of the issue at hand. While Remainers dominated the discussion, I’m afraid I got the impression that just as few really knew much about what they are wanting to remain in as those on the opposite side did the converse. More depressing was the claim that ‘nobody had ever been told’ much about the E.U.

Well, I would say to today’s Ambassadors for the Power of Learning: Go and Find Out! Go and read the literature; go and travel (not just ‘holiday’) in those countries! As we urge the pupils, learning is not a passive process!

I could relate a number of other recent experiences that have similarly reinforced the impression that there is increasingly little to differentiate teachers from the less-educated masses, but to do so would be to identify certain individuals whom I have no wish to offend. But my overwhelming impression is that teachers, like everyone else, are increasingly the victims of a mass-produced, commercialised, cyanosed culture whose only raison d’etre is mindless consumption and the groundless Worship of Me. A wider, personal interest in knowledge, learning, culture and the more cerebral side of life seems increasingly rare.

How this chimes with one’s credibility when it comes to standing up in a classroom and espousing the power of intelligent thought, I do not know. More to the point, what will be the consequences of a growing disconnect between how people behave professionally and personally? It’s an extension of the older objection that smoker-teachers can hardly preach the non-smoking message.

I expect many will be bristling at my presumption in commenting on the lives of others – and yet I find it difficult to understand what could be seen as a gentle hypocrisy or blind spot. One of the main impressions I was left with of my own schooling was that the teachers were almost without exception intelligent, thoughtful people: in some ways a pillar of society, who stood up for certain values not only in how they taught, but how they lived. This certainly did not mean that they were all solemn intellectuals (though some were) – but that they nonetheless practised in their own lives the values that they tried to imbue in their pupils; I know – some were family friends, and two were my parents. Perhaps the first of these was a decent formal command of their native tongue. But I am far from certain that this outlook is still universally the case within teaching.

I am not advocating gratuitous elitism here: a certain down-to-earthness was and is probably both necessary and desirable in a teacher – but I have never seen why that should mean actively endorsing the mindlessness or shallow materialism of contemporary life. Surely others can see through it too? In fact, for intelligent culture to be really credible, it needs to be embedded precisely in the everyday lives of people who are not university academics. This is what I have seen amongst teachers on the continent, where a different self-perception still seems to endure. If we as teachers can’t find anything productive to do with our own time on this planet, let alone actively stand up for thoughtful, educated values, then why should we expect any more of others?

In a world where substantial, coherent, intelligent thought is both declining and ever-more necessary, what hope is there if a substantial proportion of even the teaching profession no longer practises what it preaches?

On this note, and gloating over the fact that my teaching year has already finished, TP will be taking its customary break over the summer. While there may well be occasional posts, normal service will be resumed in September, and I wish my readers (in the northern hemisphere at least) a restful summer.

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.

 

Grind

Fish64 recently pointed me towards Dylan Wiliam’s sexily-titled book Embedded Formative Assessment  (thanks) but being stingy, I took a ‘look inside’ on Amazon first… Chapter One begins:

Wiliam 5

Two things struck: Wiliam talks about ‘educational achievement’ and not education; I assume this is intentional. I concede that I have not read the rest, but on this showing I am not inclined to.

Secondly, I wonder what Wiliam thinks about the education that leads to the all-important ‘achievement’. How does reading Shakespeare’s plays or studying the customs of rainforest peoples lead to ‘achievement’? Perhaps he has the times-tables more in mind, but then he is a mathematician…  I’m also curious about how he manages to define achievement so precisely. Maybe I should read it after all.

He continues:

Wiliam 6

Now, he may be right about the harsh economic realities of the world. I don’t think many would contest the need to be self-supporting, nor that reducing unnecessary burdens on the State is undesirable. Nor is it wrong to look to the future, though Dylan risks falling prey to the ‘Twenty-first Century Skills’ fallacy.

But I read with a heavy heart. For if these are the only reasons that an eminent educationalist can find to justify educating people, then we really are in trouble. Becoming an educated person has been subordinated to the abstract of ‘achievement’; in this view, the day-to-day reality of teaching real children in real classrooms has no other purpose than to stave off macro-scale socio-economic disaster.

I do not get up on dark January mornings with such utterly miserable aims in mind.

For all that these things are undoubtedly useful by-products of what we do, to have sunk to such utilitarian depths fills me with despondency. Are we really suggesting that the pleasure to be had from an appreciation of poetry or world culture or scientific insight is of no higher use that keeping the pay-cheques rolling in? And in any case, global trends are tending to de-skill most work, not the opposite – so will more education really help?

At present, I am loosely privy to investigations into under-achievement in older students. My reluctance to discuss specifics makes it difficult to be more precise, but I know this group well and have worked with its predecessors for over 25 years, longer than anyone else involved. I have noticed changes from close at hand; I have views on what the issues are, supported by an accumulated back-catalogue of comment and discussion.

Here we have a microcosm of the wider problem: those addressing the issue have tried any number of technical fixes and none has worked. The thinking seems to be that what is needed is more control, more coercion and less freedom. The solution is seen in changing the procedures.

I beg to differ. Both this approach and Dylan Wiliam’s book are missing something essential, namely that education is about people, not machines. In fact, people generally intensely dislike being treated as though they are machines. I don’t care how many books dissecting the human mind tell us that it is all a matter of brain chemistry and cold behaviouralism: people do not experience life like this, and therefore do not understand it thus.

Those who believe people can be engineered in this way, and that successful education is simply a matter of getting the systems right, miss the vital point. What is actually needed is more emphasis on the intrinsic life-affirming qualities of education, and less on the dull routines. The situation I described above is both a delicious and an exasperating example of the limitations of the technocrat’s world-view, the most striking evidence yet that my instincts are correct. I am simultaneously bathing in schadenfreude and wishing I could do more to help.

My certainty comes from two sources: in a rather oblique way, I asked the students for their perceptions. I am in a slightly unusual position, one that perhaps gains me answers they wouldn’t give under more senior scrutiny; more of this anon.

The second source is even simpler: the experience of the other human beings enduring similar difficulties: their teachers.

Teaching is often described, with reason, as the most satisfying of occupations, and yet many of the teachers I know best sound increasingly sick to the back teeth of it. I will not mince my words: I know many dedicated, competent and hard-working teachers who seem utterly hacked off with the way their chosen profession is going.

It’s not the teaching, nor for the most part the pupils. And I’m not even aiming for the easy (management) target – but the fact is, the whole joyous ensemble has been reduced to little more than an unremitting grind by the sheer pointless tedium of the production-line mentality.

This most creative and intellectually stimulating of activities is having every last breath of life squashed from it by the endless, grinding routine of targets, reviews, initiatives and yet more targets. The pleasure of learning has been replaced by the fear of failure, curiosity usurped by the dullness of tick-box and target review. And so far, I’m only taking about the teachers.

When I asked the students what they felt was important they were forthright:

  • Schools that feel like a community not an exam factory.
  • Teachers who know you as a person not an exam target.
  • A regime that does not threaten and constrain as its way of ‘motivating’.
  • Interesting things to learn, from teachers who are knowledgeable and enthusiastic about them.
  • And they were honest enough to admit that their own motivation was key: without it, no amount of coercion will work; with it, none is necessary.

There are other subtexts – but the fundamentals are little different from how the teachers are feeling about their work. It is about nothing more than the basic considerations of the ‘Humane Factor’.

We might learn two things:

  1. Forcing people to teach or learn (well) doesn’t work.
  2. Paying people, whether in certificates or salaries, is not enough either.

And this is precisely what the technocrats cannot see even when it is staring them in the face.

Both teachers and pupils are utterly beset by imposed diktats that sap their morale, kill their interest and reduce their work to little more than a chore for the sake of keeping their superiors off their backs. Each time they jump, the only response is ‘jump higher’. And we wonder why motivation evaporates…

I know from bitter experience, when you cloak education in bureaucracy and compulsion, it kills the vital interest STONE DEAD. The only motivation left is to survive in the bland and futile world that remains.

The most likely human reaction is to put the brakes on. There comes a point where enough is enough, where the tank is empty, where there simply is no more to give. And at that point, people start refusing to co-operate. They become desperate to preserve what remains of their autonomy and wider lives and if anything, commitment falls.

And the people who instigated these systems? They look on with puzzled expressions, wondering why their clever science and management algorithms no longer give the results they expect. But being products of a utilitarian world where nothing other than mechanical pragmatism and material outputs matter, they do not see. What’s more, though all this is hardly news (there is a large body of work from people like Daniel Pink on what really motivates people), they do not have the grace to listen to anyone who dares suggest that they have it wrong. Their only remedy is More of the Same.

I’m not given to sympathy for wide-eyed progressives who believe that education should be a process of indulgence, but this surely worse. I don’t believe we have an entitlement to a cushy life, but is this really the best the (arguably) most advanced civilisation the world has known can come up with for even its more privileged members?

To reduce one of the great civilising and cultivating forces of human existence to nothing more than an exercise in defensive utilitarianism is a catastrophe. It crushes the spirit – not that those responsible would understand, less care, for such concepts. It turns life to dull routine, grind, drudgery. It kills optimism and the genuine appetite for knowledge. We become just grist to a particularly faceless, mean-spirited mill. And it’s insidious: it reaches even into my weekend, when I sit down to plan the week’s lessons.

Wiliam’s error is to look through the wrong end of the telescope. True, the world around us is changing – but the basic needs of ordinary people really do not change very much. The basic functions of life remain broadly the same, as do those of the human mind, such as the ability to be motivated or bored, fascinated or uninspired.

There is very little point in trying to organise a small-scale, bespoke activity like teaching from the perspective of the macro-strategist. What is important is not whether economic Armageddon is being averted, but whether people are finding their education interesting, whether they are making sense of the world around them, whether they feel valued and cared for – and whether they can go on to live largely ordinary but fulfilled lives; this isn’t primarily about ‘achievement’.

The problems facing education are not those of macro economics. But in creating an education system predicated the converse, they have utterly failed to notice that these are not the things that inspire people, unlike the fascination that comes from a genuinely lively, humane mind. And if this comes good, most of those larger concerns will probably take care of themselves. You can only create an educated society by creating educated people. Yet the system has created such vast amounts of pointless busy-work that people scarcely have time to pay attention to the things that really do matter, such as the time to think deeply or to build meaningful relationships.

I don’t doubt that Dylan Wiliam is correct about the trends, but a much better approach would be to educate people for a world where they see different priorities, different ways of finding fulfilment and of supporting themselves. It means lifting our eyes from the ground – what education has long been about – not simply fixing them ever more firmly in the dirt. It may mean helping people to find fulfilment elsewhere than the shopping mall. Wiliam’s is an outlook based on an Affluenza-fear of losing what we have got – but the solution is not to make the anxiety greater.

This approach has turned education into little more than an unending cycle of grinding procedural drudgery. Willing workers have been turned into resentful slaves, and those responsible look on uncomprehendingly while their grandiose visions fail before their eyes, and then they crack the whip once more.

No wonder people are looking for ways out.

 

Sweating the assets

A friend of my family is due in hospital tomorrow, for a cataract operation. Had it been scheduled for today, the operation would have been cancelled, due to the junior doctors’ strike. I have mixed feelings about this. On the one hand, people do not fall ill to plan, and the risks associated with the lack of care available at weekends are surely unacceptable in a developed country like the U.K. Doctors’ protests about working at weekends only hold so much water when many other people work during those days, myself included, in many cases for lower pay and esteem than medics receive.

On the other hand, when one considers the hours already worked by junior doctors, they are one of the few professions to put even teachers in the shade. It equally cannot be right for patients to be treated by individuals so exhausted from long hours that they are barely rational. My family friend cannot afford to lose her sight as a result of errors made under such conditions.

It also not right that society should expect the cost of improved weekend care to be borne by those in the medical profession. As our great market society proclaims, if you want something, then you must be prepared to pay for it. Spending on healthcare in the U.K is lower as a share of national income than in many comparable countries; getting improvements on the cheap simply by worsening conditions for existing doctors is not acceptable.

Whether it be the demands for weekend working from medics, or the ever-increasing workloads of teachers and other public servants, the country needs to realise that it cannot have something for nothing, and attempting emotional blackmail is not the answer either. Those people often support society in ways far beyond the call of duty – and for none of the adulation or recompense received, for example, by certain recently-deceased pop stars.

I strongly support any drive to improve the quality if public services in the U.K., hopefully to the levels seen in many of our neighbours. I do my best, as do my colleagues, to deliver the best service we can under highly pressurised, under-resourced circumstances; we might be able to do better still if the constraints, particularly of time, were not so severe. But this cannot be done on a shoestring, relying on the sense of vocation of well-meaning individuals to pick up the tab, at the expense of their own lives and wellbeing and that of their families. This is something I am decreasingly willing to accept, and I support doctors in defending their own reasonable interests too.

In both medicine and education, this non-problem could be solved at a stroke – by recruiting more people to cover the extra work, in the process both reducing over-work (thus making it more possible to do the high-quality, considered work that society says it wants) – and reducing the disincentives for people to enter those professions in the first place.

Them and us…

I was invited to a slightly posh party just before Christmas. The hosts are lovely people; he is something or other in The City and I don’t know what she does. It became known that I teach, but to my surprise, no one said, “How unfortunate. How did that happen?” They may still have been thinking it…

I don’t feel particularly comfortable in smart society and I ended up talking most to a couple who – you guessed it – turned out to be retired teachers, who appeared to be feeling the same. On the other hand, given the polarity of British society, I/we probably have more in common with such people than those we are supposed to be engineering – ahem, I mean whose opportunities we are meant to be improving. Is there any reason why teachers sometimes seem to perceive themselves as plebs, or why the job confers that feeling? Not a comfortable fence to sit on.

Here’s some cheerful news to start the new term. Last month I set up a poll to gauge the self-perceived impact of teaching on people’s wider lives. Of the 85 page hits, only twenty people committed to voting, far short of what I had hoped, so this hardly constitutes a sample size of any use at all.

However, of that twenty 14 (70%, if that is meaningful) replied that their work detracts from their overall wellbeing, Four (20%) said that it enhances it and two (10%) said it did neither. Given that over 75% of viewers did not vote and the consequently small sample size I am going to add no further comment, so make of it what you will. I wonder what the other party-goers would have said about their lives.

More generally, visits to my blog were modestly up on 2014, as was feedback (significantly) from readers. Numbers remain small compared to some blogs, but I do not wish to use Twitter. I won’t add my thoughts about the self-proclaimed ‘most-read edu-blog’ whose author seems to add Tweet This sound bites at the end of every other paragraph!

I was chided recently (not on the blog) for not being clear about which camp I sit in. The answer is none! Is it really helpful to see education (or indeed life in general) in such factional terms? This seems to be an endemic part of life in Britain, and I fear it creates more problems than it solves. Surely in education at least, there is more that unites than divides us.

I am reminded of the words of A.A. Milne:

“The third-rate mind is only happy when it is thinking with the majority. The second-rate mind is only happy when it is thinking with the minority. The first-rate mind is only happy when it is thinking.”

A good maxim for a new year.