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.”


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?

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

Today I attended a training session aimed at tackling the marking impasse. The aim was to develop smarter marking techniques, and it had been delegated to a poor sap who is a good colleague and friend, so I will begin by making it absolutely clear that this is not a snipe at him, nor indeed any of those present. My intention is to demonstrate that so-called smart working is in fact nothing of the sort.

I was however left with a deep sense that those in the room divided into two camps, with a chasm of outlook between them. I suspect it goes beyond marking, right to the core of what they think education is, and is for.

The session leader had been assiduous in researching the topic and had assembled a selection of strategies from the great and the good. Most of them involved the use of rubber stamps, green pens or various forms of what one might call enhanced peer and self assessment, the aim of which seemed to be to reduce the amount of input needed from the teacher. A number of them consumed considerable amounts of pupil time in lessons. This is not to say that there was nothing that will be worth trying, but as I said, I left with a deep sense that my entire professional and academic instinct is ever more deeply at odds with what is now being advised.

  1. The point of marking is not to make it convenient for the teacher. It is to give constructive feedback and affective praise (where due) to pupils. Why, on the one hand are we being told that marking is so important for pupils that we must do so much more of it, when the next step seems to involve all manner of contorted ways of writing less in the name of keeping it manageable for the teacher?
  2. I consider my job in the classroom is to ensure that pupils become as knowledgeable and skilled in my subject as they can. I do not see how the use of coloured pens, rubber stamps, printed forms or peer breakout groups will do that. They are a bureaucratic distraction and they swallow vast amounts of time that would be better spent studying the subject.
  3. All these approaches do is divert where time is used. If I were to adopt them, any time saved writing on pupils’ books would more than be absorbed by preparing and duplicating paperwork – and my work would be constrained by the need to access the same. Too often, form-filling makes it impossible to say what one really needs or wants to. The time would better be spent marking properly.
  4. These approaches contort lesson planning for the ends of assessment. They divert pupils’ attention from the wonders of the world around them and focus it on the dullness of paperwork, even at their young age. Maybe it is meant to prepare them for the world of work… The effect is to replace a motivating activity with one that is supposed to monitor motivating activity, but is actually pretty dull. It also has the effect of placing a bureaucratic distance between the teacher and the pupils, thereby muting the immediacy of any communication. And we wonder why pupils lose interest.
  5. Many of these techniques assume that pupils are able to assess effectively. The whole point of intellectual activity is that it deals in the realm of the ‘unknown unknown’ (from the pupil’s perspective). By definition, no one is in a very good position to assess the value of material at which they are a novice – so the chances of missing content being seen are slim.

The chasm I referred to earlier, I am afraid beggars belief. It seems there are those (many?) in the profession who seem earnestly to believe that the solution to the bureaucratic nightmare that presently is marking, is MORE BUREAUCRACY. They seem to think that all this low-grade administrative busywork is the answer to the marking problem and moreover that it can actually improve pupils’ learning. This outlook is precisely why the profession is in the dire workload straits that it is.

What makes it all the more frustrating is that there are those of us – often characterised as mavericks – who can see the solution staring everyone in the face. It is LESS bureaucracy. The only piece of kit needed is the ever-ready red pen. All that is needed is to accept that it is not essential to deep-mark everything that a pupil writes; much routine work is quite acceptably tick-and-flicked. Then we could concentrate, as I did today, on deep feedback of a complex piece of investigative work done by my best year nine class, where there were complex ideas to explore. Much of it was done verbally with pairs or threes, and it will be followed up with detailed, personally written comments in red pen. The pupils seemed more than happy with my constructive criticism and heartfelt praise.

The answer as so often, lies not in complexity but simplicity – and an acceptance of the reality of education rather than the imposition of a theorist’s dream. The fact is, marking cannot be, and does not need to be smart. Or if it can, then smart has to mean simple, not complicated. It is time-consuming but important – but it needs to be kept in proportion as the art of the possible.

I wonder why those who sit there (nationally) in rapture at the sound of all those intricate administrative routines don’t actually go and find themselves a job where they can genuinely release the inner pen-pushing minor bureaucrats that they evidently want to be – and leave those of us who just want to teach to get on with it.

What works

I am nearing the end of the course with my hard-working Year 11’s. In last Monday’s lesson, I tried to enthuse them for the final push by saying that with determination, we might just finish before Easter. – and we proceeded to have a lesson where their work-rate was noticeably slower than normal. I can only assume they felt they could afford to put their feet up a bit; it just goes to show how unpredictable the classroom dynamic really is.

I sometimes wonder what would happen if it could be proven beyond a shadow of doubt that some pillar of what we do – say, the pressure of preparing for high-stakes examinations – really did cause serious damage to young people, say long-term psychological harm, or at least depression and demotivation. Would the decision be taken to abandon it? Or are the institutional imperatives now so strong that we would continue anyway?

I suspect the issue would be evaded by saying that there is in fact no way of proving such a claim – and that is probably correct, for all that I may feel that excess pressure in my own education caused me to put the brakes on. (Come to think of it, things have not changed so much: the enormity of the marking mountain now being presented as a necessity is hardly making me all the more eager to climb it…)

Yet if one tries to deploy considered doubt in the same way to critique any of the seemingly questionable initiatives we are routinely required to enact – that same, utterly surreal marking regime for example – it is normally ruled inadmissible. I have had two conversations about marking in the past few weeks; in both cases, mine was a genuine enquiry regarding the provenance of cast-iron evidence that marking at such intensity does actually make a proportionate difference. In both cases, the tone of the response seemed to imply that my question was ridiculous; only one made any other response at all – and that was to invoke the name of Saint John (Hattie).

It is true that Hattie talks about the importance of feedback – but to the best of my knowledge, nowhere does he specify that this means mountains of written marking, let alone double marking, at any particular frequency or in any specific colour of pen.

What’s more, Hattie’s calculations themselves are not beyond doubt, nor the appropriateness of his ‘effect size’ as a technique in the first place. And, I would add, the results of meta-analyses can never be refined to a point that makes them useful at the level of the individual classroom: they are just too generalised. To be blunt, Hattie is simply not much practical help when one is struggling to cope with the daily realities of being a classroom teacher.

Yet this ‘proof’ is apparently deemed sufficient to warrant the consumption of vast amounts of teacher-time plodding through mountains of exercise books, writing www/ebi comments that pupils, unless prompted, will scarcely look at, let alone act on in any meaningful way. (I have suggested before that cognitively immature minds are basically after the affective ‘hit’ of praise, rather than deep academic analysis). It is even more groundless to believe that the addition of stickers, stamps, forms, coloured pens or any other such paraphernalia will make any substantial difference whatsoever to what people learn. And if they are intended to be a coping mechanism for teachers, they are only likely to compromise any benefit that properly written feedback might bring.

But judging by the current tsunami, someone somewhere has decided that this needs to be wheeled out as widely as possible. Who – and where – are they? Or is it just some kind of educational meme? In which case, someone ought to be scotching it before it gets completely out of hand – this is no basis for the running of a credible profession.

To take the matter further, just how much of what we do really is, in its fundamentals, simply beyond proof? I would suggest that most of the educative process is still taken largely on faith. If, as David Didau and others have suggested, learning is invisible, then we simply have no way of knowing. Teaching will never become an evidence-based profession, simply because we cannot see the evidence. At best, we have weak indicators in the form of ‘progress’. But as Robert Bjork argues, I think convincingly, performance is not a reliable indicator of real learning either.

So what is left? Well, we know that learning happens. But it happens all the time, irrespective of what teachers do – it’s a normal, universal brain property; even Hattie accepts that. We know there are some things that impair formal learning, such as unruly classrooms and poor pupil attitudes, and it makes sense to minimise those where we can.

If we accept this, then all sorts of vanities start to slip away – such as the fact that teachers have anything like total control over their pupils’ learning, or the fact that teaching styles have a huge impact on learning (they shouldn’t, so long as classrooms are purposeful). That same year 11 class was genuinely horrified when I hinted that lazy pupils’ failings are held attributable to their teachers…

The only other thing of which I can be reasonably certain is that my ongoing presence in a room with a group of young people does have some impact on them – but I won’t pretend I know the half of what it actually is. I know that it is possible to engage their interest to a greater or lesser extent – but I also know that the factors that affect it are only partly within my control. It makes sense to maximise those that are.

But to do that, I need time and energy – both of which are increasingly being wasted on huge, mind-numbing, multi-coloured bureaucratic tasks whose ‘proof’ of effectiveness is no stronger than that with which my objections are regularly dismissed.

And much weaker than the evidence of my own eyes, that suggests the opposite. Evidence-based profession? Hmm; to use evidence this selectively and one-sidedly is really not to use it at all.

This way madness lies…

Some days ago, I found myself in the unexpected position of contemplating a new job. An appealing post came up in a local school – a Free School, no less – and despite having more or less concluded that I will probably see my career out at my present school, I began wondering whether a change might not be such a bad thing.

The last half-term was fraught. Not so much with the pupils as other things,  notably the issue of marking. I’m going to bend my usual purdah on matters specific here, because I suspect the issue is actually more general. In my faculty, there are long-standing guidelines about the frequency of marking, which are demanding – some would say unsustainable – as they are. We have now been told that we must also expect children to respond to our marking with ten minutes’ worth of green pen every time books are returned – and then we must go back through their books and acknowledge or respond to their replies. This is in effect double or even triple marking. There are also burdensome codes that must be used for every conceivable error.

In addition, older pupils must have timed assessments at least once a fortnight, to be returned within a week and re-done and re-marked  if they do not meet their target grades. No matter if the weaker pupils end up in a mess with several on the go simultaneously. I should make it clear that, at present, this is not a whole-school issue, but the doing of an over-zealous middle manager.

I calculated that this would involve me in more than three hours’ marking every day of the week in order to meet the demands, and other colleagues fare even worse. That is without the additional work of planning and other tasks that the difficulties of our timetable impose. I also brought home several classes’ worth of assessments to mark over half-term, and a bag-load of G.C.S.E coursework and could easily have spent the whole week working.

There were protests, but they were brushed aside. I contemplated mentioning the impact on family life, but was advised this would simply be ignored. Where this will lead after the holiday, who knows.

Britain’s “patchy education system” is mentioned in this month’s Prospect as one of the country’s Achilles’ heels. Who working in education would not want the system to be as good as it can be? I doubt there is anyone who disagrees that marking is important.

But this is not the way to do it. I simply cannot function at the intensity now being demanded; nobody can. On a practical level, there are insufficient hours in the day, especially as marking time at school is almost non-existent. The only option is to mark in lessons, which is not a good use of teacher-time. Anyway, my brain cannot cope with such endless drudgery; I find that quality drops, and I end up howling for a break. It is simply not possible to maintain quality in such quantities with such intensity. Stultification sets in – and yet the system will not budge.

Teachers have been left with the prospect of eating yet further into their personal lives, cutting the quality in order to cope with quantity, or failing to meet the deadlines while trying to maintain quality. Either way, the stress of being set up to fail like this is unacceptable.

I have yet to see any conclusive evidence that shows that marking is the panacea we have all been looking for. There are plenty of countries with excellent education systems that do not take this approach; there are plenty of well-educated British who did not experience this regime either. Some of the most successful systems are so laid-back that you’d hardly recognise them as such; they tend to have people who actually enjoy working in education. Experience suggests that while pupils can be trained to respond to such systems, they do not do so voluntarily. Much of the response is mechanical and needs regular prompting, all the more so amongst those who might most need the support – and a necessary activity just becomes a millstone.

What we have here is just another example of the grinding, bureaucratic response that is the only way the British education system knows: if you need more horsepower, just flog the teachers again. No matter that it seems to have minimal impact on the effort or attainment of the pupils, and may even be counter-productive. This country’s system  knows no other way – but this is not the path to ‘world-class’ excellence. In fact, it is the response of a system that has not the slightest inkling what that phrase might mean in educational or intellectual terms.

I am resolute that this is where the ‘line in the sand’ lies; many colleagues concur. We have been left with no other option but to ignore the stipulation and deal with what consequences may emerge. In fact, it is becoming ever clearer that this rapacious system knows no limits at all. The more we deliver, the more it demands. So, as it seems incapable of doing so, we will set the limits ourselves – at a point which delivers a more civilised and reasonable work-life balance. I have cut my evening watershed from 10pm to 9pm and anything that does not get done by then will not be. But it is not an entirely happy feeling; despite the welcome rest, the anxiety lurks even though finishing work at 9pm each day is hardly slacking.

And so I found myself looking at the job description for a free school. I wondered whether ‘free’ might mean free from the kind of madness described above. But then I read of the school’s rigorous policy of coloured-pen marking, of multiple-marking of pupils’ work, of peer assessment, learning walks, work scrutiny and the rest. What’s more, the foundation that runs it stipulates the exam board that must be used. Teachers are required to work in teams with partner schools to assure quality and develop approved teaching strategies.

And I wondered which conceivable definition of ‘free’ this might be.

A taste of forbidden fruit.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

We can but dream.

Content? Thriving?

Regular readers will know that I am particularly concerned about the impact of the modern school environment on teachers’ personal wellbeing and notably the ways in which schools (inadvertently or otherwise) may be making that impact worse than it needs to be.

In my view, schools and the nation at large should be thankful that people are still prepared to do what is an exhausting and challenging job at all, without making matters worse through unrealistic demands and expectations.

The most immediate improvement would be brought about by creating space for teachers to do their job in a less pressurised and more considered way that also has a less detrimental effect on their personal wellbeing.

Finally, I believe that it is simply not acceptable for people to work under the constant anxiety and distress that the never-ending demands in many schools now seem to cause  their staff. Working life should not feel like a punishment – least of all in a socially responsible job like teaching. And neglect of the staff is de facto a neglect of a school’s prime asset, quite apart from any moral considerations, and as foolish a policy as can be conceived.

A propos nothing more than my own curiosity, here is a not-especially scientific attempt to gauge whether the conditions outlined above are widespread. I have created a very simply one-question survey and ask readers to take a moment to complete it. I don’t use Twitter, but for once I urge readers to forward my post so as to maximise the survey size. The survey remains open for one week and I will publicise the results in the New Year.

Thank you; have a restful holiday.




Gimme PROOF!

I got my knuckles mildly rapped on Friday for failing to provide the fortnightly data on my exam class. No matter that instead of setting a data-yielding past question, I had specifically directed them to spend an hour’s homework revising, in an attempt to bust their self-confessed reluctance to start preparing for their mocks (and had passed this information on). Apparently, this was insufficient reason for not providing the data; a rather rude word went through my head. I expect it will do so again tomorrow for my insufficient deployment of green pens.

A colleague has calculated that just to mark all his pupils’ work to the stipulated level requires in excess of sixteen hours’ work per week – in addition to all the other stuff he has to do. Knuckles can apparently get rapped for failing to achieve that, too.

I’ve just finished Tomsett’s book, with mixed feelings. I’m disappointed that he feels that the way to great learning is through great management; my experience suggests that overt management (at whatever level, including self) is as likely to make things worse as better. Better to remain nimble on one’s feet.

On the other hand, he clearly values his staff and knows that treating them well is the key to treating his pupils well – unlike a manager of another school  who once told me that his attitude to his staff was “bullish”. To which one might as well add a ‘Y’. I’m afraid I simply don’t understand how anyone can think that antagonising people is the way to get the best from them. Quite apart from the inevitable psychological reaction, setting unachievable targets, for example, is a sure-fire way of corrupting the system.

Despite my tone, I don’t decry the ‘innovations’ that educational management has exposed us to; an awareness of, say, differentiation or effective feedback is a helpful addition to a teacher’s armoury. But these things largely happen all the time in classrooms anyway, in a thousand unobtrusive ways; the burden is proving it. The time taken doing this often detracts from just getting on with it.

Tomsett calls for an evidence-based profession, which is curious since much of the case he builds in his book is distinctly anecdotal. He cites healthcare as being evidence-based, despite the fact that many within it have big misgivings about this approach. Caring for people (as opposed to merely treating them) is distinctly heuristic, and ‘interventions’ are less cut-and-dried that it might seem. Judgment is still called for – and even in the Law, ‘evidence’ is often far from conclusive.

I wouldn’t have an issue with evidence if much had been forthcoming – for despite all the discussion, precious little has emerged that can be claimed as hard evidence for universally effective, specific practice. Even its proponents increasingly seem to be ring-fencing their findings with caveats. If hard evidence could indeed be produced, it would enable managers to direct teachers absolutely in what they should do – and there would be little argument to be had, for who could oppose ‘proven’ good practice? But would even that make for good teaching?

But the fact remains, much of what we are being directed to do is NOT proven. It is based on whim and managerial convenience and plain old petty, jumped-up bureaucracy.  Where is the evidence that intensified written marking makes a substantive, universal difference to pupils? Where is the evidence that the colour of that marking improves their education? Where is the evidence that entering data on a spreadsheet makes a substantive difference to anyone except the bureaucrat whose job it is to check it?

From the current argument, teachers should not be required professionally to do anything except that which is proven to improve their pupils’ education, and perhaps some basic good housekeeping. (As always, I define that in opposition to the narrower (though sometimes necessary) objective of exam cramming).

On that basis I look forward to the forthcoming massive reduction in my workload.

It may not be wrong…

…that I stayed at school later than usual supervising students on the Controlled Assessment catch-up.

…that as a result I endured a significanty longer journey over the thirty miles home.

…that as my wife got caught behind an accident and took 80 minutes to go fifteen miles, by which time I was already working again, I have hardly spoken to her this evening.

…that she still cooked the dinner so I could carry on working.

…that because of a few days feeling off-colour, I am having to work extra-hard to catch up with the backlog.

…that I have just enough time to take a shower and read for ten minutes before bed – and that is the day done.

…that all of these things need to be done in the name of providing today’s children with a good education.

But it sure as hell is wrong that the uppermost thought in my mind as I did those things was the need to cover my back because of what ‘might’ happen at the forthcoming work scrutiny if I don’t get it all finished.

St. Jude’s Day

It’s the little things that offer a window into people’s minds – like the intermittent grooving of some of our younger pupils (normally but not always girls) as they move around the school. They may be at school, but in their minds they’re in a pop video. It’s in the fact, too, that not only the girls but their parents appear to think it is acceptable to go through a school day laden with shiny helium balloons and armfuls of expensive gifts that lets you see that they all dream of being princess for a day – and that their parents think it’s O.K. to collude in this show of competitive consumption, even when it creates both a practical nuisance and a perpetual distraction within the classroom. When it comes to splashing wealth, learning suddenly takes a back seat. And then there was the sixth former who said her ambition was to be a Disney Princess…

I’m going to be non-gratuitously offensive during this post, albeit more in sorrow than anything else – but those of a sensitive disposition should stop reading now. I take my work seriously, and I cannot help, when confronted by such expressions of consumerist froth, asking myself hard questions about what we in education actually think we’re achieving. What would the world look like if we were actually being successful in raising the intellectual level of the populace?

I suppose I’d better concede that I start from a fairly extreme position. After all, while we do own a T.V. I think the last time it was turned on was during the Olympics – and only then because some guests wanted to watch. It’s not that we have ideological objections, so much as a lack of time, too many far better things to be doing – and an utter failure to find anything that even remotely entices us to watch. Even the documentaries and current affairs are so sugary and patronising these days as to feel like an assault on one’s intelligence. My only screen-watching comes from hobby-related clips on YouTube.

We are so far out of the T.V. watching habit that when faced with one, I consciously experience a rather unpleasant hypnotic effect that is clearly alien to the mass of the population: I find it hard to drag my eyes away from the screen in a way that others don’t even seem to fight. I did a little research and found out that the British are near the top of the viewing league, with something like four hours a day, during which they watch around 50 advertisements – something else which make me recoil in horror at their utter inanity.

I encountered a pupil the other day who owned up to having eight televisions in her home. On the other hand, the data are conflicting, with this making interesting reading. For what it’s worth, the people I know in other European countries seem to watch more selectively, though I suppose one does need to beware the Hawthorne Effect.

In my view, this whole education business is only worth it if we are making a meaningful difference to the quality of people’s lives. One might hope that with developing intellects, people would appreciate the enriching effects of self-growth. The Danes have a word for the warmth of a well-lived life: hygge. The rewards from unselfconsciously developing new skills, knowledge and insights are for my money the very stuff that makes life worth living; that, and warm, meaningful relationships of course. Life lived with such substance is fantastic, be it through building new friendships, developing one’s appreciation of art, food, music or whatever, and growing one’s own worldly competence in the process.

The ability to cut though hype and propaganda and move towards a more considered view of the world is another part of a life well-lived. It’s perplexing and sometimes infuriating – but what is the alternative? To go about our lives wrapped in a fog of ignorance and second-hand opinion? If I believed that the only purpose in educating people was to permit them to fill their increasingly cramped, insubstantial houses with ever larger amounts of mass-produced tat, I think I would give up tomorrow.

And yet, I fear we are fighting a losing battle. Oliver James has written about the insidious effects of T.V. on people’s world view and self-perception, and in particular the way it increases their susceptibility to Affluenza and commercial manipulation.

I visited some people I have known for many years and see occasionally. They are a little younger than me; both are professionals, and educated in some of the country’s most prestigious institutions; nice people. Maybe I simply don’t understand – but they nonetheless seem to live utterly indiscriminate lives. They have a daughter whom I have known since her birth, who is now approaching secondary school age: a delightful girl, clearly bright and already exhibiting considerable musical ability. And yet this is gradually being crowded out by the tsunami of commercial tat to which she is being exposed. Her mind seems dominated by the social media, the latest commercially-hyped girlie bling, a never-ending round of indulgent social events – and the dreaded disco groove is making an increasing appearance.

Even for a ten year old, she seems completely self-obsessed, with little of the growing awareness of the world outside herself that one might just start to see budding in a bright child of that age, and seemingly not much awareness of her own intelligence – utterly unlike the rather serious kids we were forty years ago, with our nerdy but knowledgeable hobbies.

And the T.V. was on loud, as it always is when we visit, even through mealtime; conversation was painfully lacking and abrupt – and I was exposed for the first time ever to the horror that is Strictly Come Dancing.

I have nothing against ballroom dancing; even have a few medals for it myself from long – very long – ago, but the utter mind rot that is that programme beggared belief; I doubt it’s the worst. It is not so much the subject matter – but as with those documentaries, the bling of the presentation, the ‘values’ that it implicitly promotes, the utter two-dimensional superficiality of those featuring and the ruthless sudden-death of the way the competition seems to work. To a gentle outsider such as me, this was an utterly appalling example of the way in which the media is conditioning an entire population, entering unquestioned into the homes of even the highly educated.

I know that this example is by no means unique; indeed it is probably far closer to the national norm than my own quiet way of life. It was echoed in the uncouth parenting we witnessed on the train a couple of days ago, and it is certainly replicated in the houses around us. We live in a lovely medieval town, but even on fine summers’ evenings, most people can be seen indoors glued to the Box. It is the subject of much of the non-teaching talk in the staffroom at school too. Quite a few of the people we know live lives that seem to consist of little more than fast food, T.V. and shopping centres.

I suppose it is none of my business how other people live – and yet I wonder what this says about how successful we are (not) being at awakening people’s desires and imaginations for what their lives might be. I don’t for one instant expect that everyone would choose to live as I do – but there is still so much more to life than many seem to find – or want.

It is not a solely British problem: German and French T.V. is, if anything even more execrable than ours, but it does not seem so utterly invasive in those countries, at least in the lives of the more educated. They seem to retain some sense of a life well lived.

Maybe T.V. is the new opiate of the (uneducable) masses – but one might have hoped that at least the educated part of the population would wish for more. Instead, it seems as though the mass media are dragging almost everyone down into a pit of mindless game shows, fatuous ‘celebrity’ and inane advertising – filling minds with c**p – and most are lapping it up. What does this say about our society, if people within it can think of nothing more constructive to do with their lives than this?

And clearly, we educators – who both wish for, and (sometimes) know personally the satisfaction that comes from doing things another way – are fighting a losing battle. How on earth can we compete with the mind rot with which the mass media are filling even intelligent people’s lives? The only answer so far seems to be to ape it.

Maybe I’m just blue as the clocks have gone back, but I think not – winter is the time for maximum Hygge – and 28th October is St Jude’s Day – the patron saint of lost causes.

Better and Better

At my school’s Open Evening last week, I noticed a couple staring intently at me. This resolved in an increasingly familiar way, as I had taught them both over twenty years ago; they were now returning with a child of their own. I even managed to dredge one of their names from the subconscious…

I enquired about their intervening years and was told a story of how many of their cohort had done the usual thing on leaving education and headed for ‘the money’ in The City; that many of them are not particularly happy but had done what parents and school had urged was important. In their own case, they had since made a significant change of direction to something they felt was more worthwhile. “People need to think what they really want from their lives”, they said. “The current system is just a conveyor belt”.

We need to ask something similar about education: what is it for? I have my own ideas which daily drive me strongly – but I’m not sure they are particularly congruent with what the system is currently set up to do.

I have just started reading John Tomsett’s book. I respect John: he seems to have achieved a balance between managerial responsibility, intellectual curiosity and compassion for those in his care, and it was his blog that led to my starting my own. Early on, he challenges teachers to be ‘ever better’. But as always, the more one thinks about this the more meaningless it seems: the issue is so huge and complex that it can seem overwhelming. It is one thing to talk aspirationally about success, excellence and constant improvement, but quite another to know what those things really mean.

I fear that such optimism derives from the Affluenza belief that more is better – one that doesn’t trouble itself with the hard questions about what More or Better actually mean. By such logic, the world 100m sprint record will eventually reduce to zero seconds. After all, we can all keep on improving indefinitely… can’t we? No we can’t. Human beings will never be able physically to be in two places at once. By the same logic, we will one day arrive at a state where every school has a 100% A* pass rate. And what will we do then? Besides, we will have very neatly rendered the whole purpose of qualifications redundant. There comes a point where we have to settle for good enough.

Maybe John will come to that, but very few of the answers I have ever encountered about the deep conundrums within education are really very satisfactory. It is encouraging to see that he is pluralistic – but there remains the thorny problem that to be helpful, we need to know what such wishes mean. No doubt conventional definitions would see those former pupils of mine as successes – requisite bits of paper leading to well-paid employment. And yet, in their own terms (which are surely the most valid) those people have discovered that the received wisdom was not right. Likewise, if we subscribe to the present view of the link between teaching and learning, then we, their teachers, delivered successful outcomes – except that the recipients themselves have come to find them wanting. The best I can hope for is that the education we provided helped them along that journey of self-realisation – but I doubt that is what the education system has in mind by way of ‘outcomes’.

One can argue that sooner or later, one must settle one’s objectives in order to achieve anything at all. One might further argue that those like me who constantly split hairs are being evasive or obstructive. Perhaps – but one must still ask whether setting inappropriate or unachievable objectives is really better than having none at all. Perhaps such things are better left undefined?

So I think we need answers to the following questions before the call for ‘ever better’ becomes plausible:

  1. In what way can/should teaching get ever better? What would such teaching look like compared to present practice? It implies changing the long-established basics of human interaction – but how? What definition of ‘better’ are we using here, and how will we know when it happens? My concern is that this can only be defined against some arbitrary preconception.
  2. Why do we want teaching to get better and better? What is actually wrong with it now, and is that anything we can control anyway? Do the costs of doing so outweigh the benefits?
  3. For whom does teaching need to get better? How will people benefit from such progress, compared to those who experience the present type? Teachers cannot know their real impact on their pupils so how can we even define what is better? What is the point in pinning so much on unknowable, even unachievable aims? I fear that here we are heading back to exam results as the arbiter – and as my former pupils demonstrated, such societal indicators of success are not foolproof. The only alternative is our own evaluation of our work – with all the problems of consensus and cognitive biases therein. Is this really about what we provide for children – or is it really for us? Or – Heaven forbid – just the ability of The System to account for itself better? It’s easy to see why these things preoccupy head teachers, but their reasons for doing so are not necessarily educationally sound.
  4. Why is all this dumped at the door of the individual teacher? Why is there so little recognition that the conditions within which teachers operate also need to get better and better? Given that most teachers are already working at or beyond capacity, this might even yield quicker returns. It all looks perilously like risk-displacement by an establishment intent on squeezing more and more from less and less. The fine words might mean more if those saying them were equally focused on addressing the limitations under which teachers work. Plenty of the mediocrity in the present system lies not with classroom practitioners, and why exactly does the need to be better exclude the workplace experiences and general sanity of teachers?

I can accept that we might want teaching to be better to optimise the life-chances of our pupils – if that is really what it does; I would like to think it also cultivates a more deliberative society. But I worry that it is being equated purely with narrow institutional definitions of success related as usual to exam passes and conformity of ambition rather than anything more genuinely liberating.

I also agree that professional pride should make us want to do the best job we can under the circumstances. But that is not the same as believing there are no limits, nor for accepting all the blame when it is otherwise. Life is a compromise. There is such a thing as ‘good enough’ – and it comes at the point where going further down one avenue in one’s life seriously damages the others.

My own teaching is always compromised, and always will be, by my obligations to my wife and family, by my own limitations and my reasonable personal needs. It is unrealistic to expect otherwise – certainly while little is being done to reconcile the external conflicts and constraints faced by teachers, whose actual effect is the opposite of making them better. This is the real irony: for all the imprecations, the things being demanded often push us in the opposite direction. If those who utter such words really mean them, the first thing they could do is get off teachers’ backs.

All the more so since the usual answer is that we have to work with what the system will allow. Well, that goes for expectations of teachers too.

If the education system is serious about wanting better teaching, then it can start by halving my teaching load so that I have adequate preparation and marking time to deliver the standards it says it wants. It can work harder to resolve the dog’s dinner of a timetable I have been given this year. It can continue by removing the utterly unproductive anxiety I experience due to ‘accountability’ and the unrealistic direct causality it thinks exists between teacher inputs and pupil outcomes. And it can recognise that my life, as everyone’s, is a compromise between conflicting demands of which my profession is but one. I don’t think this makes me a bad, uncommitted – or unusual – teacher.

It might also ask itself what it actually means by such phrases as ‘ever better’. What do they mean in practical terms? What pressures do they impose on those charged with – and held accountable for – delivering such indefinable ideals? Do we even know what better looks like? It is not as though there have never been false educational dawns in the past – and as my former pupils show, the present view of success is no more absolute than any other.

Such notions are best left as vague aspiration, a useful mechanism by which we self-monitor in order to maintain high professional standards. But beating ourselves up for accepting that there is such a thing as good enough is another matter entirely – particularly when those who question it clearly hold that view in the way they often treat us.