Of tragedy, irony and other epic failures of a classical nature…

“People without an internalised symbolic system can all too easily become captives of the media. They are easily manipulated by demagogues, pacified by entertainers and exploited by anyone who has something to sell.”
Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi

Reading Fintan O’Toole’s recent book Heroic Failure – Brexit and the Politics of Pain, it is easy to see that Csikszentmihalyi is onto something. People who are not equipped with the ability rationally to understand and contextualise their own situations are all too vulnerable to the deceit of others. And it is this, perpetrated over many decades, that ultimately brought us Brexit.

This post is not (really) about Brexit – though in my mind, it is almost impossible to separate that tortured issue from the matter of education in its widest sense. Had more of the British population been properly equipped with the thinking skills that effective education can provide, there might have been greater scrutiny of the misinformation that was propagated during that campaign – and, dare I say, a wider perspective on where the nation’s interests really lay. Being Irish gives O’Toole useful leverage in terms of detachment – though not necessarily impartiality – about such matters. He is, though, widely recognised as one of the most astute commentators of our time, and his book does attempt to overcome his own remain tendencies and approach objectivity.

His account chimes with my own lived experience of this country over the 56 years of my life – and the gradual dawning on me, by exposure to life elsewhere (that educational process again), that what was presented to the young me as Eldorado, was perhaps tainted by an inability to see what was happening elsewhere, and a vested interest in believing the UK was the best of all possible worlds, even at the time when it was in fact faltering. It is such exposure to the unfamiliar that is at the real core of effective education – yet it is also something that education in Britain has increasingly retreated from, in favour of safe, predictable mass-produced work-prep. (Keep your head down, obey the boss, and don’t ask difficult questions….)

Michael Gove, another character who is virtually inextricable from the debate about both recent British education and Brexit, reputedly so prized his own classical education that he believed it was a model for all. Yet an epic, tragic consequence of his legacy as Secretary of State for Education was the loss of ‘A’ Level Critical Thinking, going the same way as European Studies some years earlier. It fell foul of Gove’s new benchmarks for QCA validation, and hence was lost to students. Gone is the opportunity that Gove will no doubt have had, for young people to learn to think with the objectivity that has come down to us from the classical philosophers.

Since January I have been teaching part-time at the Sixth Form College that gave me a way back into the profession last autumn. I was also allowed to provide for volunteer students a short course in Critical Thinking just before half term. There is only so much one can cover in four hours – and yet the response from the students was overwhelmingly positive. So much for its being a minority subject; the verdict of the punters suggests that we need this subject back on the curriculum as soon as possible, as elements of it remain in most other European countries:

“I wish I had been made aware of this at the start of my A Levels”
“Very helpful on learning how to analyse information. I really enjoyed the sessions”
“Learning how to break down and question arguments was really helpful”
“I found the sessions very helpful in finding a new way to think”.

A theme of O’Toole’s book is the way in which British (really English) self-perceptions have been manipulated over a period of decades by those with vested interests in perpetuating or promoting a certain socio-economic model, one that involved keeping the country antagonistic to further acquaintance with its EU partners, let alone finding new ways to think.

These are the kinds of skills that Critical Thinking develops – and throughout the public debate of the past four years, I couldn’t help but reflect on the widespread inability in this country to engage in any kind of remotely rational thought. I was involved with this at a very immediate level while campaigning for remain. My overwhelming impression was that people were simply ill-equipped to engage in any kind of objective thought, such as CT provides – and that went for both sides of the divide.

That isn’t only the fault of the education system, of course – but I can’t help but feel that a different approach in recent decades might have helped address the deficient critical faculties of a large part of our population.

The ultimate tragedy is that people in this country now face an uncertain future, where they are going to need all the inventiveness and creativity that they can muster. Those who criticise this nation’s people for their fecklessness may have a point – but they confuse the cause and the expression of a serious problem – which is actually the failure to equip a significant portion of the people with even rudimentary rational-cognitive skills, preferring instead to feed them a diet of mechanistic, low-grade “employability skills” and hubristic, patriotic pap, because they supposedly can’t cope with anything more.

In that, the education system has been largely complicit, preferring to make itself ‘accessible’ and ‘relevant’, ‘compliant’ – and ‘closed’ rather than the intellectually-challenging tackling of imponderables and Big Questions that it needs at least in part to be. On that at least, Gove and I can probably agree – though it is O’Toole who has the final word on the societal consequences of this failure – while Gove ironically became one of its chief architects.

Prior to reading O’Toole’s book, I was reading Seneca – a Stoic. I have a feeling we are going to need his sometimes-challenging teachings too, in the coming years.

Further details of my Critical Thinking course can be found at https://wordpress.com/view/thinkbetterthinkcritically.wordpress.com

Stand Back!

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Faustus

It may have been a mistake to start reading Geert Mak’s painfully detailed 1999 history of Europe while my head still suffers from excessive emotional reaction. But never has it been clearer why we need to know our history to avoid making the same mistakes again. Reading excruciating accounts of how the Bolsheviks behaved in Russia 100 years ago , how the Nazis came to power in 1930’s Germany, and how the two World Wars began, hints of the trends repeating in our own age are unmistakable. I just hope that it doesn’t lead us to the same place…

Yet it is so easy for otherwise good people to be taken in by warped patterns of thought. I’m still in touch with a number of practising teachers; one told me recently how he, a deputy head, had been instructed to get tough with a number of un-favoured staff in his school. He objected to treating people harshly – and was told that “That is your job. This is the way it is now. There is no other way”. Admirably, he argued the case and made some headway – but has ultimately decided that he is unwilling to do that management’s dirty work, and has found employment somewhere else. I shivered with recognition.

The case I mentioned previously of irregular, even illegal practices in a primary chain elsewhere in the country continues to develop. The person concerned, the chain’s financial manager, is highly professional, and working for a small fraction of the salary they could command as a chartered accountant. But this person felt professionally obliged to report the malpractice being witnessed – and now they have become the target of the latest management firestorm, the good ‘framed’ once again to justify the deeply inadequate.

I became acquainted this week with the phrase ‘flattening the grass’ – which has also been picked up by John Tomsett and others. Apparently it began as a management euphemism for destroying all opposition to one’s regime. Shivers of recognition once again. But it appears that this is extending to the pupils – with assemblies being run, the purpose of which is to shame, humiliate and intimidate pupils into submission, supposedly in the name of improving discipline. I never witnessed anything like this, though I did see pupils being very heavily read the riot act prior to an Ofsted inspection.

One begins to see how ordinary circumstances are gradually subverted. It may even be that those perpetrating such acts do not see the full implications of what they are doing. But the slippery slope is there, and they are starting to slide increasingly rapidly. Faustus is selling his soul once again. The confrontational, evangelical politico-education system in Britain certainly creates incentives for such thinking – and of course, the country’s political madness is hardly majoring on compassion itself at the moment. It’s catching.

Little by little, we slip collectively further down that slope. We are vaguely aware of what is happening – but ‘accountability’ just leads us from one desperate thing to another – and we justify it to ourselves on the grounds that it can be no other way.

And so we end up with a situation where educational establishments – which promote themselves as the ultimate expression of societal good – can come to believe that it is quite appropriate to demonise their staff and humiliate their own pupils. All in the interests of the greater good, you understand.

People who make a stand, who try to stick to their principles and do the right thing themselves become targets, just as they did in 1930s Germany. Gradually all opposition is expunged. In the echo chambers that remain, those in charge only hear the reverberations of their own warped logic. And they are utterly blinded to the single most glaring fact: if this is the only way they can see to treat others, then the unforgivable inadequacies they correctly claim exist within the system lie not with their victims – but somewhere much, much closer to home.

I am just relieved I am out of the nuclear winter that is now the British education system – and unsurprised to hear that my own former school has lost its Outstanding grade in a recent Ofsted inspection. Too much mafia hubris; too many good teachers ‘disposed of’, and too few replacements available; a perfect storm – and reputations travel. I try to avoid schadenfreude – but maybe there is a glimmer of justice left in the world after all.

There is no other way. Quite correct: if you treat people badly, then you leave them no alternative but to turn against you.

But still the management Mafiosi continue their warped ways:

We must destroy these inadequate teachers. We must reduce these children to tears. It is all for their own good. There is no other way.

Thus is how vicious totalitarianism is ushered in.

But we all know what happened to Mussolini.

A momentous day (to bury good news).

I’ve now run two evening classes for a small group of local adults in my home, where we are covering the rudiments of Critical Thinking. The experience is doing me a lot of good: it has brought back some confidence that not only can I still teach, but do it well enough to enthuse and inform my ‘pupils’. (Yesterday, by word-of-mouth my class voluntarily grew in size). Two years on, it is starting to reassemble something from the debris of my professional self-esteem.

I make no apology for continuing to document my mental health experiences. My wish is to do what I can to communicate the severe impact that stress and overload can have on teachers, and people generally, in the hope that it will be both a support and a warning. Some of my posts have been re-used by those raising the profile of the issue elsewhere. Perhaps less honourably, should any of those who caused the situation happen to read, I want them to know the full repercussions of their actions on this erstwhile long-serving and conscientious member of their staff – not that I expect it will cause them any lost sleep.

However, the issues are still ongoing, and our current means are extremely tight. Last November, I secured an interview for a basic administrative post. During the associated test, my anxiety kicked back in, I froze – and failed on that count. So things are still not ‘right’; I won’t be going near a classroom any time soon.

But I don’t mean to wallow. The Guardian this morning is reporting that on this politically momentous day, Ofsted will formally announce major revisions to its inspection regime. This has been in the offing for some time, and can only be good news.

At long last, official recognition is being made that the quality of education is not synonymous with exam data. Amanda Spielman will apparently say that “we have reached the limit of what data can tell us” – a diplomatic way of accepting the flaws in decades of policy.

But what damage has been done in its name! Not only off-rolling (excluding children whose results will harm the school’s data) – but also a host of other policies which have brought the ethical standards of those who run schools into serious disrepute. Gamesmanship should have no part whatsoever in a principled activity such as education.

The ruthless quest of incentive-driven senior managers for compliance at all costs cares little for the impact of that selfish myopia on others.  As well as off-rolling, it has been the primary driver of curriculum-narrowing, the wider neglect of non-core subjects, the deprofessionalisation of staff – and worst of all, the ‘spike’ in mental health problems amongst both pupils and their teachers. The quest for ‘maximising opportunity’ always was nothing more than a thin veil for self-serving institutionalised lust. Hence perhaps the current alarm at this reform in some managerial quarters. It is a sick irony that a supposedly caring profession has been driven by those who often publicly profess to ‘care’ most deeply of all (Ofsted included), severely to damage the very wellbeing that it claimed to promote.

Not long before the end, my school’s union reps (of which I was one) were mandated by their members to approach the management with severe concerns about morale. We were hardly the only school where this was a problem.

But we had just such a ‘driven’ management, which not only ignored the representation made at that time, but also my personal attempt at back-door diplomacy when it failed. But then, it also ignored numerous other manifestations of the harm that its data-craziness was causing. I cannot be sure that this did not contribute to an agenda that did not stop (whether by conspiracy or cock-up) until it had played a large part in badly damaging my mental health. Just one casualty amongst many.

Today’s reforms by Ofsted should be welcomed with open arms. If they can be successfully implemented, they should play a significant part in restoring the balance and perspective that has been lost in education. They are also an explicit recognition that good education cannot be wholly quantified, and that it was a mistake to think otherwise. With any luck, they will also reduce some of the pressure that was brought to bear on those of us who are/were in pure educational terms perfectly competent practitioners, but who were vilified for refusing to sell our souls and accept the Long Winter.

It will no doubt take a long time to change a culture where so many influential people are invested in the outgoing mindset. Long enough that it will more than see out the years I might have had left in the profession. But it needs to be done. The tragedy is that the collateral damage has been so great.

The Great Exception

Just a reminder that my book The Great Exception – Why teaching is a profession like no other is still available here.

A teacher-reviewer described it thus:

This is a very thought provoking book. It is a challenging read, but once you get into it, it prompts you to reflect on what and how we should be teaching our children. These days, education seems to be all about exam results, but the author argues that there should be more to it than [apparent] academic success. He examines the nature of teaching and learning in depth and successfully makes a case for more autonomy for teachers, who at present, are to some extent hampered and frustrated by prescriptive guidelines on how to manage their classes. Teachers in training could learn a lot from dipping into ‘The Great Exception’.

Here is a short except:

…I want to discuss here the conflicts that the systems-approach creates in terms of what it actually means to be a teacher. The choice of words is important: to be a teacher, not simply to teach. The latter implies a specific physical activity that can, at least in theory, be defined as a discrete set of actions which can therefore be specified and measured. It also implies a recruitment process that is focused on technical proficiency that can be both easily defined for the purposes of job advertisements and judged during the recruitment process. It supposedly makes the evaluation of that process relatively easy when it comes to the whole matter of appraisal, reward and even capability proceedings. However, it overlooks the crucial matter discussed above – that much of being an effective teacher is a matter of personal qualities and characteristics that are neither easily identified nor measured. These non-cognitive qualities may be difficult to identify – but they are often the things that determine what sort of role-model an individual will make – and thereby what context they will generate within which to exercise more specific skills. As Hilary Wilce has observed, children tend to take their leads from role model behaviours not instructions – and it is for this reason that wider teacher-qualities and behaviours are so important.

That schools have to operate within a regulatory framework that promotes quantifiable, accountable decision-making is, of course, not their own fault; neither is it necessarily an undesirable thing in itself, as there clearly needs to be some mechanism for regulating these processes and identifying out-and-out malpractice. However, the presence of such defined, black-or-white prescriptions for teaching can easily cause wider issues to be forgotten under the onslaught of an officially-sanctioned ‘truth’. The ways in which such constraints are then interpreted can lead to a narrowing of job descriptions and a loss of appreciation of the actual qualities that make up a successful teacher, many of which are indeed intangible. However, the latitude for autonomy and self-determination that can be read into such frameworks by individual managements can still make matters significantly either better or worse, as suggested by the varying degrees of teacher freedom observed from one school to another.

The fact that teacher-specifications have increasingly focused on technical capability at the expense of more indefinable personal qualities may be a reaction to outside circumstances, such as the need to widen the field of potential teachers to those who perhaps lack natural talent or insight, but who are nonetheless needed on sheer numerical grounds. Likewise, anti-discrimination legislation has perhaps forced more specific criteria on those involved in recruitment. But it has nonetheless shifted general perceptions of what it is to be a teacher, from that of someone with desirable personal qualities to that of ‘mere’ technical ability.

If this seems like a rather idealistic argument, then I suggest attempting a similar exercise in drawing up a ‘job description’ for an artist, actor or indeed a spouse, and then appraising their effectiveness in finding the ideal candidate. One might also consider the effect of one’s own behaviours on the responses one obtains from such people. Teaching has often been likened to acting in terms of the qualities required to ‘hold’ a class – but a merely technical outline of the necessary requirements for being an actor do not approach an explanation of why some actors are celebrated while others spend a lot of time ‘resting’. It comes down to a unique and largely indefinable set of specific personal qualities. The same is certainly true of spouses; I cannot imagine there are many people who would consider willingly marrying someone purely on the basis of a technical description, for all that dating agencies attempt to do just that…

I am told that the chief inspector of schools Amanda Spielman has a copy. Whether it has been opened or not is, of course, another matter…

She’s done it again!

When Amanda Spielman was appointed as Chief Inspector of Schools at Ofsted, there were the predictable sniffy responses from the profession: what could a non-teacher know about the education profession?

Well, it turns out that an outside voice is proving to be just what is needed. Spielman is unexpectedly becoming the ‘breath of fresh air’ that the profession so badly needs.

In recent days she has observed that it is not reasonable to expect schools and teachers to address all of society’s ills – that parents and other agencies need to be responsible for their own impact too. And more recently still she has called on professional leaders to abandon their preoccupation with pedagogical gimmicks  (singling out Brain Gym as an example), and allow teachers to focus on the basics using tried and tested techniques that work for them in classrooms.

The teaching profession has always been prone to the distractions of gimmickry: the whole progressive movement is predicated on – as Spielman observed – the belief that the Holy Grail is waiting just around the next corner. It is not. The problem has only been made worse in recent years by school managements desperately plugging anything that they hoped might push their institutions up the league tables.

My only regret is that personally, Spielman has come a few years too late: during my career I was repeatedly bombarded with instructions to adopt such gimmicks by a few influential people in my school who saw this as the way to ‘lead learning’. Their influence was reinforced by rather more others in middle management who were reluctant to challenge them. It was made clear that disagreement was not permissible. It was my reluctance to comply with – and my willingness to challenge – such idiocy that first saw me marked by those who in reality were more interested in compliance that cultivating real professional excellence. Much of what Spielman is now saying formed the core of my own book on teaching and education.

There remain those for whom it seems imperative that education should dance to some all-embracing meta-tune. It is not unreasonable for the profession to seek some form of consensus over what works – but it should not be ideologically driven, and it is good to see Spielman in effect challenging this. As I proposed in The Great Exception, it is entirely possible to derive a model of good professional practice that is based in the realities of good classroom practice rather than the vanities and insanities of those who are always looking for the Next Big Thing.

Festina lente

There are occasionally times when specific events give rise for a little educational optimism. The change of heart at OFSTED regarding the use of data in inspections is one such, which I have mentioned before.

It will, of course, take a long time to work through a system that has been obsessed with data for several decades. But for every point of optimism, there still seem to be several heading in utterly the wrong direction, that reveal modes of thought that one might have hoped would have been completely seen-through and rejected by now. All the more regrettably, they often seem to be coming from those in policy-making positions.

One such is the recent revival of proposals to cut degree courses to two years in a drive to make them more affordable. To be fair, the current proposal is intended to provide an option rather than a cover-all. But it is just another example of the extent to which educational policy remains utterly economy-driven. One might have hoped that, by now it would be widely accepted that (supposed) economic efficiency does not always deliver wider, often intangible life benefits – and given the nature of the degree ‘experience’ probably does not deliver very good value for money either. A better solution would be to cut or abolish tuition fees, so as to remove the financial pressures from the learning process.

If one sees a degree as little more than a passport to employment, then I suppose it does make sense to push people through and out into the workplace as quickly as possible. But that is utterly to miss the point of the process, and it is depressing to think that such policies very probably originate from those who went through it themselves. Does it reflect their own understanding of what they did?

What this outlook still fails to understand is that life – most of all a genuine life of the mind – is not a directly-commandable economic utility. Cognitive development cannot be hurried for the sake of simple economic efficiency. While the three-year degree is of course an arbitrary construct in its own right, the longer such courses last – within reason – the more chance there is that the individual undertaking it will ‘grow’ into the experience. That, after all, is one reason why higher qualifications take longer!

In my own case, it was only really in the final year of my degree that the thing started to fall into place, and with it the commitment that had simply not been there during the first two years, when there was so much else to do at university.

And that is the other ignored point: as well as being an intellectual experience, being at university is a time of major personal growth. This can only be even more the case given the relatively recent knowledge that the human brain is not fully mature until one’s mid-twenties. There is still a lot of learning and personal development to be done at that stage, and compressing the process only risks further devaluing the whole thing to begin with: a two-year degree will be over before it has hardly begun.

While schools are not directly concerned, of course, with the duration of pupils’ study, much of the same thinking has been prevalent in them for years. It has all been about quantity and speed (for which read quasi-economic efficiency), without any apparent appreciation that the real experience of learning can neither be hurried in this way, nor packaged and sold in such limited terms. One might have hoped that we would be much further down the road of seeing such economised myopia for what it is – there is plenty of evidence of its effects right across society. We need to accept that there are certain things in life that you just can’t hurry.

But perhaps the critical feature of such myopia is its propensity for being self-perpetuating.

Sheeple

“You can’t not have exams!” The old guy (a former teacher) was incredulous. I decided to play devil’s advocate. “Why not?”

“How would you educate the pupils? How would they get jobs without qualifications?”

The conversation came after he had finished reading The Great Exception, and I was being subjected to an intense grilling over its contents. I decided not to go down the avenues of what constitutes meaningful assessment, or the fact that other countries seem to manage very well with alternative structures.

I will say outright that I do not doubt the need for testing; the discussion was founded on a misreading of my point – but it only emphasised the extent to which the education world is lost in its own circular reasoning. One could easily get the impression that the world would stop turning were formal education – and hence exams – to cease to exist. But it is not so. What I question is that exams should be seen as the purpose of education: a view that has become steadily more pervasive.

Without exams, education would continue in other forms – after all, in essence it is nothing more than the process by which newly-arrived young creatures (even sheep) make sense of the world they find, and the vast majority of life on this planet manages quite well without examinations. It is true to say, however, that most ‘higher’ forms of life involve some form of education of the young by the old, even if mostly just by imitation. And even in ‘primitive’ human societies, some form of testing often emerges to validate that process.

As with musicians working towards a performance, a focus is desirable, if not essential for most learning – as indeed for work in general. It provides both a discrete objective and an incentive, in the form of validation of the effort invested and the standard achieved.

The problem comes from the short-sightedness that can ensue. The fact that one creates a largely artificial construct in order to motivate and validate does not mean that that benchmark is, or should be, the sole purpose of the exercise. I suspect many would accept that the point of learning to play music is not just to pass exams, or even to perform. It is an end in its own right, though the way it is often pursued makes it easy to lose sight of the fact.

Although I have reservations about the mentality that it develops, I don’t even object to the pursuit of targets per se – if that is what gives a certain kind of character its kicks – but we should still not conflate an appetite for challenge with the medium which some people happen to use to fulfil it. If ‘challenge’ is your thing, then it arguably doesn’t matter too much whether you express it through passing music exams, academic exams, learning watch-making or pushing your 100 metres personal best.

But the pursuit of challenge often crowds out the initial purpose of its ‘carrier’ medium. The point of music is to enjoy the creation or hearing of music as in intrinsic ‘good’. One assumes – though the case is somewhat weaker – that the point of running is at least in part to enjoy running. To see it as nothing more than the means to a (target) end is to allow extrinsic motivators to crowd out the intrinsic ones. This comes with a cost.

In the case of intellectual activity, the purpose is not to pass exams, but to develop one’s cognitive ability for its own sake, of which any specific application can only ever be a sub-objective. This is perhaps the most important activity of all, because the ability to use it is not only intrinsically rewarding, but also adaptively useful. It allows one to address life‘s problems in a more considered way, and generally to act more autonomously through the ability to analyse for oneself rather than being reliant on others for what to think or do.

To some extent, I can close purpose with my interlocutor here, because there is no doubt at all that one use of such abilities is indeed their application to Work, and the certificate that one gains through achieving a certain level is (supposedly) a marker of one’s effectiveness in that respect. But we should still not confuse the validation with the process itself.
Einstein is credited with the quote:

“Education is what is left when one has forgotten everything he learned in school.”

– though he may have been borrowing it from a perceptive but unknown wag. It is surely correct: the only inherent purpose of education is that which is common to all species: the development of the cognitive abilities that allow one to operate more effectively. All else is peripheral, no matter how enjoyable, or socially-useful we make it.

But the old guy’s comments were evidence of the extent to which we have lost sight of this: the social and economic advantages which recognised education can bring have trumped its fundamental purpose. Inasmuch as intellectual fulfilment can be gratuitous, so has this too: the capabilities one can acquire in specific disciplines are useful, and intellectually rewarding in their own right – but they too are nothing more than ‘carriers’ for the neural effect that such experiences can cause in building networks in the brain. This is what Einstein meant: the only true purpose of education is its cognitive effect; once you have that, everything else flows from it.

This is not to say that the incidental benefits of learning are unimportant but they are still nothing more than incidental, and their use is still dependent on effective neural development. It is quite possible for forms of formal education to fail to develop that – while still handing out certificates like confetti, in effect for simply having ‘breathed the air’.

The vast multitude of ‘qualifications’ held by populations around the world do not stop them from making some pretty stupid decisions, which better ability to self-scrutinise cognitively might reveal this fact. This is no surprise: qualifications are simply social constructs that attempt to reflect (imperfectly) someone’s real abilities. But the focusing on the peripheral benefits – to the extent of losing sight of their true status – can even prevent people from using their brains in the way they need to. Alvesson & Spicer’s book The Stupidity Paradox is a testament to the fact the even extremely clever people can act very stupidly when circumstances conspire.

The inability of people to scrutinise claims made in the Brexit debate is just the most extreme recent example of how all the certificates in the world do not in themselves prove people can use their heads. It may even be getting worse. There was some correlation between education levels and voting decisions, but I am not implying that there was a ‘correct’ decision – simply that the grounds on which it was made were often flimsy. Subsequent developments have shown this to be so.

This comes at the time when the subject that arguably most directly addressed the issue has been removed from the school curriculum. Simply because it did not meet QCA’s administrative criteria, Critical Thinking ‘A’ Level is no more. I suppose I should not be surprised: the formal educational establishment in Britain long ago lost sight of its true raison d’être. Just as the financial sector stopped funding the real economy when it was allowed to manufacture greater (spurious) benefit from financial engineering, the education sector long ago stopped being about actually educating people in the neural sense, and started being about fulfilling its own internal objectives.

So long ago, in fact, that it seems that even several previous generations of teachers cannot be relied upon to have noticed. But the consequences of this myopia are very real, and living with us in the way society as a whole is changing today. Its growing failure to do anything more than equip people with meaningless bits of paper is the elephant in the room of why education is not achieving what it supposedly sets out to.

With even the professional educational world largely thinking like sheep, one wonders what hope there is.

A letter to my old school (and the many others like it)

So how do you feel now? I’m talking particularly to those who (have) run the place. How do you feel now that the Head of Ofsted no less, has confirmed her intention to remove exam data analysis from school inspections?

She says it distorts educational priorities, even damages children’s interests. Some of us could have told her that a decade or more ago. But it is what you built your whole institution upon. You are the people who were proud to admit that you ran an exam factory. Are you experiencing a sudden loss of purpose, since your whole rationale – if that is not too fancy a word for it – was built for years on the macho extraction of results data from pupils and teachers alike?

In a way I don’t blame you for what you did: it was only what you were told to do. But you still took it much further than you needed to, drunk on edu-corporate bullishness (remember that word?). There were too many glittering careers to be built in going along with it. You discovered that by bleeding people dry you could harvest data which impressed the inspectors, politicians and local public, which justified your management strut, which treated ordinary teachers as machinery and pupils as data fodder.

I don’t think the ‘customers’ were actually unhappy – but the bonhomie in the school existed despite the management not because of it. Even though you claimed all the credit. They are not a particularly enlightened bunch, the ‘clients’ in this area. A passport to a high salary for their children was all they mostly ever wanted. The fact that you paid yourselves handsomely while making front-line staff redundant no doubt impressed them too, since many were probably doing the same in their own lines of work.

You also figured out how to please the inspectors and accreditors; that was far more important to you than the happiness or well-being of your staff. You refused to implement even the most basic workplace guarantees where you could get away with it. I was in the room when you refused to countenance an H&S stress policy. Only bad teachers get stressed, you said. You always said we could go elsewhere if we didn’t like it; many did, and not for the reasons you claimed. That’s how much you valued us.

Playing the corporate game served you well. You had your fancy holidays, your flashy cars and your smart clothes, far out of reach to those who did the real classroom graft day in, day out. Some of you barely taught a class in years, and when you did the results were often no different from those you pilloried for what in their case you called ‘failure’.

I have no doubt you have clear consciences. In fact I genuinely think you did what you believed was right at the time. Who can ask for more? And the fact that the system worked for you only proved you were right – didn’t it? But you still had to sell the soul that any honest educator would find far more difficult to do that you did.

Yet your failure was even deeper than that. In your dismal, mundane world you utterly failed to see what Amanda Spielman has now accepted: that the important thing about educational success is not the grade, but how you reach it. It is the educational experience that is important, not the letters that it generates on a spreadsheet.

In the process, you sold out, too, on the real ethical purpose of education – which is not to help school managers to preen themselves. You didn’t care less about the breadth of the curriculum, or even whether the experiences children were having in classrooms were genuinely educational, let alone motivating, so long as we all pumped out the A grades.

When a hole appeared in the ‘A’ Level results, you chose not to consult the one group of people who knew why: the classroom teachers. We could see that grade-priming was coming at the expense of genuine learning, we could all see students coming into the sixth form without properly-embedded prior knowledge – that too was sacrificed to short-term grade gain. Those students were drained of enthusiasm by the bleak target-slog that you made of GCSE, ever to come back willingly for more: most were only there because they felt they had no choice. It was the educational equivalent of a property bubble: currency backed by no wealth – and now it has burst.

We could feel that it was making the job of teaching children more difficult and less effective. But you over-ruled us every time: you knew best, we were ‘anecdotal’ idiots (remember that word?), not the “experts in their field” that Spielman now accepts teachers are.

Publicly, you will probably say that you welcome the changes – but your behaviour over the past decades went far beyond  doing unwillingly that over which you had no choice. Much of the damage done to the education of British children – to say nothing of the teaching profession – came directly from the offices of school managers. No higher.

So how are you going to function in a world where you may no longer be able to blather your way through, hiding such inadequacies behind reams of meaningless statistics? How are you going to deliver a service that actually requires people to be properly educated? Which requires a school to be a place of learning, not just data mining? Because here is your real failing: you epitomise the emptiness of that approach – people with the right credentials, but nothing behind them. You didn’t understand what we were saying about the priorities and processes of genuine education – because such things were all too evidently a closed book to you too.

Your most abject failure was a glaring lack of leadership – despite the re-branding of management as such. You didn’t lead us anywhere worth going. You and your ilk failed to challenge the powers that were pushing education in the wrong direction; not easy, I know – but presumably that is why you call yourselves Leaders. To do the tricky stuff. But no: there was too much to gain from sucking it up.

You failed, too, to challenge those limited expectations amongst the local populace – to show them that real education is not just an exam grade. But no – that would have required the vision and courage to tackle entrenched beliefs – something you utterly lacked. You never backed those of us who tried to argue otherwise; instead you narrowed the curriculum simply to maximise data outcomes. That is not good education. Education is not about giving people what they want, even less what they already know: it is about challenging them with things they don’t even yet know they need.

So please don’t begrudge those who resisted our current wry smiles. Those whom you didn’t even deign to acknowledge when we passed in the playground, to whom you could be so unpleasant when it suited you. Those whom you hustled out of the place at the first opportunity for daring to stick to our own principles and for not buying into your narrow remit. Educational principles we knew were right. We could see what was really going on.

In some cases, our entire careers were defined – blighted – by this utterly pointless obsession with meaningless data. Spielman has said as much: “Teachers have been forced to become data managers”. Too right they have – forced to game the system and mortgage their own well-being purely to massage the egos of managers – and too many have paid with disillusion, their health and their livelihoods.

Spare a thought for the time I sat at a computer facing a dilemma over whether to falsify so-called achievement data in order to keep you happy, or whether to stick to my principles and record the reality I could see, knowing how unpleasant the consequences might be. I am proud I did the latter, even though it helped to kill my career.

So forgive me for having the last laugh. While you kowtowed to your superiors, some of us were trying to do the right thing. For us small fry, making a stand on a matter of professional principle was important, even when it did us harm. Not an approach shared by you, our ‘leaders’ for whom compliance, even collusion was a far more important consideration than anything that required the courage of conviction.

In some cases, it damaged us personally – but we knew we were right, every time you ignored or over-ruled our input and views. I may be beyond the professional grave now – but I feel well satisfied by what Spielman appears to be saying. The principle we were defending has now been recognised for what is it – and the damage done by your false gods called out, despite the scorn which you poured on us when we tried to speak up.

It was us that kept the true spirit of education alive, while you were busy selling out to the gods of educational mammon. What will you do now?

If I were going there, I wouldn’t start from here…

I’m awaiting the arrival of Robert Plomin’s new book Blueprint: How DNA makes us what we are. In a recent interview with The Guardian, Plomin claimed that the statistical evidence suggests that heritability is a more significant determinant of human characteristics than we like to believe. He also observed that one of the fields proving most resistant to his findings is…education.

I find this rather ironic, given how the education world has supposedly jumped on the bandwagon of evidence-based practice over the past few years. If this is to mean anything at all, it has to be about responding to whatever the ‘evidence’ tells us. Instead, it seems that education is still choosing to ignore evidence that does not correlate with its carefully crafted and jealously protected ideology. We are right back to the Cargo-Cult.

Equally ironically, the often-dogmatic view that the main impediment of individual life opportunities is societal, leads the Left quickly in the direction of the Positive Psychology movement, with its right-wing insistence that anyone can be anything they want, if only they try hard enough (and overcome any social obstacles). The logical conclusion of this, of course, is that anyone who failed simply did not try hard enough, and should be shown no pity. I suspect this is a position that many on the well-meaning Left would feel much less comfortable with.

Having also recently read Danny Dorling’s Inequality and the 1%, which contains a long chapter on educational inequalities, I have somewhat reconsidered my view of selective education – or at least the process by which it occurs. It has become apparent to me that the whole circumstances in which it now operates have changed considerably from what I experienced in the 1970s. For a start, the Eleven Plus is no longer the discrete, everyday classroom test that it was then. Now it is a pressurised, Saturday-morning marathon, which depends on the ability of parents to ferry their offspring to the nearest grammar school. Consequently the whole social display of preparing for and taking it has become more conspicuously elitist than it was. Likewise, the ability of selective schools themselves to control the nature of the test seems to have dropped it right into the laps of those who would indeed use it for social rather than intellectual purposes.

While this has made me reconsider my views on the test, those who are implacably against selection should also bear in mind that the current nature of the Eleven Plus is not the only way it can be. I would argue that the historic approach was fairer, not least because access to it did not depend on anything other than going to school on an otherwise normal day. Today’s inequities are more about the social context than the intellectual principle of the test itself. We should not allow our view of selection to be determined entirely by the means in which it is sometimes effected. Once again, I can’t help but reflect on the considered, low-key  (and reversible) way in which it happens in Germany and Switzerland, countries where matters of intellect and education are not routinely conflated with social status or mobility, as they are in Britain.

At the root of opposition to selection is, of course, the view that it unfairly discriminates against certain groups. Well, discriminate it does, but as Plomin points out, if it is indeed true that aptitudes are more determined by genes than we care to admit, then it can equally be argued that putting everyone through an identical schooling experience makes no intellectual sense, and may just as easily be unkind or even harmful. Socially, we can of course attempt to use uniform education as a leveller – but only by holding the more able back. Which educator would knowingly embrace that – particularly as (in economic terms) it patently doesn’t work?

Plomin is no elitist: he is at pains to show that the conclusions from his findings might just as easily be used to justify more support being given to those who are ‘genetically disadvantaged’, as the opposite.

My reservations about non-selective schooling derive not from any inherent wish to hive off certain ‘elite’ sections of the population, so much as the dulling effects on those who as a result experience inappropriate education for their needs. Unfortunately, most comprehensives were more a matter of ‘secondary moderns with bright kids’ than ‘grammar schools for all’. What was – and is – too often lacking in comprehensive schools is a strongly thoughtful ethic. Note that ‘thoughtful’ need not mean traditionally academic: it is about valuing the power of deep, demanding thinking, and the achievement of high standards, no matter what the discipline. But the agenda in many comprehensives was that high standards are themselves elitist, and were therefore to be rejected.

The dominance of that view is to be seen throughout the comprehensive sector to this day; my impression is that relatively few of those who staff or run our schools are themselves genuine ‘thinkers’. The mania over exam results is no denial of this: more a confirmation that the entire thing is being run by people who either understand little or care less about the true nature of high cognitive development. Those who understood the true relationship between education and exams would be more considered in their approach.

The impact on the population has recently become all too clear: the legacy of education as a form of low-brow entertainment (just because some supposedly struggle to cope with more) did not prevent the campaigns over Brexit – and the subsequent factionalised nastiness – from proceeding on the most facile of bases. It failed to protect the populace at large (including many who should have known better) from being misled – perhaps by both sides. That people are now increasingly recognising that they were misled does nothing to diminish the fact that a more widely educated population would have been better-informed and less easy to deceive in the first place. The claim that ‘we were told what to think by the wrong people’ misses a much deeper truth about the nature of, and responsibility for, individual knowledge.

The same is undoubtedly true in many other situations where the growing power of the media to distort is meeting little resistance from ‘consumers’ who arguably ought to be better-informed and wiser to begin with. It is such qualities and values that bland, dumbed-down, universalised education has too often failed to transmit.

I have never doubted or disagreed with an egalitarian ideal for education; Heaven knows, this country still suffers enough from its historically having been otherwise. But blank denial of the (possible) reality of the situation hardly strikes me as a good position from which to begin. I am not suggesting Plomin’s work should be accepted without careful scrutiny – but if it turns out to be more correct than our sensitivities would prefer, pretending otherwise will only mean we are starting from the wrong place. And this is only going to frustrate the provision of educational opportunity genuinely tailored to the needs of every individual.