Tom Bennett

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Day One at The Sunday Times Festival of Education: Glastonbury for Swots*

*copyright A A Gill

When Hercules died, Zeus granted him immortality by transforming him into a constellation. I felt similarly blessed this weekend as I attended the Mount Olympus that is the Wellington College Festival of Education, the old-money Zion of matters secondary-academic. In its second year, I was frankly delighted to find myself invited to pontificate. Teacher shall speak unto teacher, in agreeable, well-appointed rooms.

A depressing example of inner city decay.

I met Old Andrew; I met Birbalsingh, and A A Gill, and Phil Beadle, and a dozen other worthies. I saw David Starkey’s stately undercarriage glower at me with carless abandon; I sat with Peter York as he ignored me and had a scone. I sat on the commode of Anthony Seldon, and held a door open for Andy Burnham.

Reader, I was bricking it.

I can happily walk in front of a thousand kids and talk about Karl Marx or Transubstantiation for an hour without notes. I adore public speaking, even more than your average European tyrant. But as every teacher knows, the transition from that to lecturing your everyday colleagues, is an abyss. More: the transition from home to away, away, away is substantial. The thought of rubbing shoulders with the Educational Premier League was enough to freeze my blood- and it’s pretty cool at the best of times.

I needn’t have worried. The Festival was a peach; it was the peach without the pit. I’m sure that to many of the seasoned performers it was a familiar, possibly even an odious duty, a necessary evil on the book promotion circuit. To me, it was a weekend pass to bloggers educational Elysium. The Sun didn’t just shine, it beamed; it beat; by Sunday it battered. The Masters of the Universe had organised even the climate with art.

They called it a festival: funny sort of festival. My session was called a workshop, and as I told my audience, I don’t trust anything called a workshop that doesn’t involve overalls and spanners. Similarly, I heave whenever someone offers me a forty-five minute lecture, or a book, or a folder, a piece of sugar paper, and call it a tool kit. Stretch a concept far enough and it snaps, or becomes so thin it becomes transparent. When a term contains too much meaning it conversely becomes meaningless. Although I did see someone juggling fire on Sunday outside the theatre, though. Maybe it was one of Grayling’s fans, disappointed by his no-show.

Most of us will grow up in a different continuum to the one that Wellington College occupies. This is earth-2.  And what a world this is: parents drop ten grand every term for their children to become citizens of the city-state that is the College. For that investment, they become members of what is, essentially, Wayne Manor, without the poverty and deprivation. Its master is Anthony Seldon, a man possessed of terrifying composure, confidence and intelligence. He looks like the sort of cove that would take one look at you, say, ‘Oh Dear, how dreadful,’ and walk away. And he’d be right.

The staff were quite spectacularly civil; and I mean civil in a way that makes you want to pinch yourself. I checked in on Friday before it started and the night porter showed me to the visitors’ quarters with the kind of ease, friendliness and charm that only an employee of an uber rich academic establishment can maintain, without a trace of obsequiousness. From that point on I could find not a mote of selfishness, disinterest or indifference; staff leapt to assist in an almost disturbing way. I’ve run a fair few establishments that trade on good service and staff, and I can assure you that this kind of consistency is nearly impossible to achieve, given that it relies on so many variables of a human nature. Mind you, mine were all minimum-wage wallahs, in between the great Antipodean world tour and the next starring role in Casualty as a corpse. Different recruitment pools, I imagine.

Even the security guard who stopped me on Saturday night (returning from a late night curry in Crawthorne- cannot recommend against it enough) stopped his car and asked me in the most civil way, if I needed any help- in that way that really meant ‘What are you doing here?’ but sounded like ‘You seem lost, would you like a bar of Turkish Delight and some hot coffee?’. When I waved my room key at him, he offered to drive me down to the main hall. It was like that.

Not much sleep for me that night; I was too busy going over my tripartite role. In their wisdom I had been given three gigs to perform at, all on the same day. The first had me introducing, and Q&Aing for John d’Abbro, whom, if any of you have read these blogs before will know, is someone I’ve written about so much in the past it feels like he’s a character I made up in a book. Perhaps I did. I could actually answer questions about Dream School for Mastermind. I’m that good. To end up with him in a speaker’s gig was a Killing Joke. The second gig I had was mine all mine: a one hour workshop (you heard me) in Wellington’s famous library. I say famous because Seldon famously decided to reduce it down to the level of an Ipad or something, by getting rid of all those beastly books and focussing on downloadable content. Which just goes to show that the state sector can really lead the independents on these matters: we’ve been getting rid of our libraries for ages. OK, we haven’t actually replaced them with anything, but it’s a start. Finally I was chairing a panel debate between Tony Sewell, Phil Beadle and John Murphy. More of that later.
The Reformation of Citizen d’Abbro.
d’Abbro: before Dream school.

The first gig had me so outside of my comfort zone, if I looked behind me I could see Voyager 1 in the distance, puffing away after me as it left our solar system and entered interstellar space.

John d’Abbro, I am delighted to say, is a charming, friendly, articulate and entirely intelligent educator and human being: the polar opposite to the craven homunculus of education that the recent Jamie’s Dream School experience portrayed. Emailing him before the event to establish the structure, I could tell that the d’Abbro of this world- the real world- was not the same man on the box. Jamie’s Dream School stitched him up like a quilt (and by that I don’t mean the avuncular Mr Oliver himself, but the production company that edited savagely in the search for conflict, confrontation and chaos) by mining every day for nuggets of greatest drama; by insisting that there was practically no way to impose sanctions on anyone; by forbidding the exclusion of the most mental of the inmates- Harlem, of course- even when d’Abbs knew it had to happen.

Apparently there was such a demand for conflict and melodrama that they never showed some of the finer moments which proved that, despite appearances, there was probably more order than chaos, even despite the TV insistence on nearly no boundaries (which left almost nothing but escalating increments of reward). There was even an assembly with a minute’s silence for crying out loud. But unless you were to book-end it onto a funeral or something, you’d never get that on telly- no narrative, no drama, you see. Silence; the enemy of broadcasting, which relies on uninterrupted stimulus and forgets that the pauses around words are the things that lend them emphasis and meaning.

It is, of course, absurd to assume that it was anything other than telly- but to present such a Just-So story to the public was a disservice, given that the intention was to raise the debate about schools and schooling. But there is precious little to be gained if you so heavily fictionalise the circumstances you’re presenting for consideration. We always knew it was telly, which places it on a similar level of authenticity as an episode of Scooby Doo, but it was sad to see that even in those depths, a deeper abyss waits of half truth and duplicity. And the fact that the reputation of people like John could be impacted by it made it even more devilish.

I’ve heard him proudly describe his New Rush Hall group he Heads (a school for EBD kids), and the systems he describes shows him not as the woolly pansy that JDS portrayed, girning about how ‘we’ve let them all down’. This is a man who takes all their mobiles of them at the start of the day; who insists on detentions on the same day that rule breaking occurs in order to start the next day with the slate clean; who holds a daily act of collective worship with a prayer. Reality TV: the great oxymoron of the 21st century. Viewer, beware. As long as narrative considerations rule broadcasting, the tension between entertainment and investigation will always be taut. And in education, we don’t need any more fiction, thanks. We already have f*cking Waterloo Road.

He gave a lucid and concise explanation of ‘Who is failing our kids?’ even as he decried the term kids (I’m not bothered by it, and  apparently the kids are alright with it). Before the session I wondered with him how many people might want to talk about Dream School- I think he was hoping for ‘not a lot. And who can blame him? When you’ve been digging the chalk face for decades, working small miracles with kids for as long, and rolling up your sleeves to get troubled kids (‘troubled’ is my new favourite term) pointing the same way as the rest of society, it must rankle that people see you as ‘the Dream School guy’. Still, fame is a fickle mistress, and parks her haunches where she will- in this case, right on his lap, as the first few questions streamed in with a Channel Four flavour.( I bet Alex Reid feels the same way. ‘Ask me about cage fighting! Please!’) It was Jamie, Jamie, Jamie. John is now one of my latest heroes of education, and I might add, a very nice man indeed, who was mauled by the camera. A lesson for us all, next time we start frothing about someone on the glass teat.

My part was brief: it was eerie to see an enormous camera bearing down on John throughout, and by association, me, so I tried to look thoughtful and Dimbleby-ish. John also got the audience to be quiet by circling his arm in an enormous helicopter blade; you don’t see Robert Winston doing that. Not without a few sherbets in him.

And here’s a thing; have you ever noticed, on INSETs for example, that people love- and I mean they f*cking LOVE- to put their hands up and bore the arses off everyone with their personal sagas? Well the same peculiar rule of narcissism appears to operate in the lecture hall and seminar theatre. Any questions for John? ‘Why yes, I have a question.  But I’ll phrase it in such a way that it’s indistinguishable from a five minute explanation of who I am, my school, and what I think about the state of education. Then I’ll leave you to sieve through it like Tony from Time Team and discern something resembling an interrogative. Thank you.’ The session with John and me was just the beginning. When I went to see Katherine Birbalsingh the next day, one woman in the audience appeared to be pitching a white paper to cabinet. I could see Birbalsingh look at her, trying to find the question with a microscope and a pair of tweezers.

Hello Wellington- are you ready to ROCK? I can’t HEAR YOU.

The next session was my very own, and I had ten minutes to dash there. There was a lovely man who wanted to talk about education, right up to the point I closed the door on my toilet cubicle; it was really odd- as if he wasn’t sure where we were, and I wasn’t in the position to nod and engage. So I engaged.

Whereas the Headline acts were all in the Marquis (the Wembley fillers of Wellington: the dream law firm of Starkey, Winston, Geldof, and Gove) more modest draws like myself were afforded accommodation more suitable to our needs. I was just glad not to have been given a portacabin and a set of juggling pins. The library was bright, and alarmingly larger than I was used to for public gigs. I bet Gove never thinks, ‘Shit, a library- I hope I fill it.’ I needn’t have worried- I counted forty chairs- not, I’d like to point out, assembled in anything like a lecture mode, but simply left at their tables. I nearly got everyone to stack them up and sit on the carpet, in an enormous and middle-class version of circle time. I resisted.  Unlike d’Abbro, my venue didn’t afford me a tie-clip microphone or a laser pointer. In many ways it was just like a very large sixth form lesson.

Birbalsingh: ‘Not Satan.’
I am happy, and entirely comfortable with saying that I think it went well; it wasn’t an unqualified success- I spent so long on the causes of the Behaviour Crisis that I barely made it to solutions and then questions- but it was a joy for me at least, start to finish. I felt like I was on my game, and the audience were polite and wise enough to express mannerly appreciation. Some of my non-gags even worked, so, like any landing you can walk away from, it was a success. I’d like to say thank you to everyone that attended, for giving up your time to listen to me- even the elderly man who sat at the back and shook his head furiously when I said that the point of education was to teach the next generation the best of what the previous generations have learned, in the hope that they do better than we did. Listen: he’d paid for his ticket, and he can shake or nod as much as he wants, he’s earned that. But I’m thinking, what the? Tempting as it was to say, ‘Tell me your concerns, wise man,’ I ignored it. Anthony Seldon came in for a minute- he must have been lost- and whispered in Gandalf’s ear, then they both legged it. I’d like to think that he said, ‘Leave it, Albert, he’s not worth it.’

Oh, and as I was talking, I played a game of spot the Old Andrew, who I was led to believe would be there. I scanned faces- and more came in as I spoke- and wondered. I even pondered.

And then it was over, fast as a bullet. I have to say, I enjoy public speaking tremendously. I even thought about politics at one point, but I can’t bear the thought of bathing in the blood of virgins, brutalising strangers and worshipping Satan. Maybe one day.

Also spoke to some lovely people who had the patience to wait behind- more names than my poor frontal lobe can bear (I write everything down)- and chat, like Ron, and Miranda, and Elizabeth, and Matt and Nick, and even some lovely staff who took the time to come up to me and tell me they enjoyed it. Really, there is no greater joy in the act than that; to connect with other people, hopefully to entertain, and perhaps even generate a silent dialogue with strangers, or offer them a stranger’s perspective. That’s enough for me. Paolo Coelho can have the whole inspiration and role model thing. I’ll settle for making some people a little bit happier or thoughtful for a moment.

The sense of relief was enormous; this is the highest profile gig I’ve played, and I only realised how clenched I was afterwards,  when I stated to relax so much I practically unravelled like a rump roast after the strings have been cut.

If you meet Old Andrew on the road to enlightenment, kill him.

For the benighted and uninitiated, Old Andrew is an excellent, anonymous blogger for whom I have enormous respect; in fact, it was the enjoyment his education blog provided me that convinced me that blogging wasn’t all about narcissism and endless introspective analyses of one’s entrails, but could be entertaining and informative, sincere, direct and ethical. He really is one of the best bloggers I’ve read, and if you want to you can find a link to him at the right hand side of this page. You will not be disappointed, unless you believe that children are naturally angelic, there is no behaviour problem in English schools, or ADHD is an empirically proven condition.

I shan’t tell you a scrap about him/ her/ it; whether Old Andrew is a man, Old, called Andrew, a woman, a hermaphrodite, a troglodyte, a child, a worker’s collective, an intelligent thought-cloud or a silicon-based life form. That is Old Andrew’s prerogative. I’m like Tony Stark- everyone knows I’m Iron Man. But Old Andrew is more like Batman, fighting stupidity behind a mask. Granted he blogs more slowly than Continental plates racing towards the Poles, but when he launches, you know all about it. Kudos to you, OA. Gotham City needs you.

There were others I wanted to see, but a body can only hold tension for so long, and besides, I had my last gig of the day- a panel discussion in the Old Gym with Tony Sewell, leader of generating Genius, the aspirational children’s organisation that works with black youngsters. (Can I say Black Youngsters? I just checked….yes…yes I can), Phil Beadle, the writer, Guardian columnist and teacher award-hoover, and John Murphy, the immaculately dressed Education Director of Oasis, the Christian Academy group (and interestingly enough, a Head Master SIX times over by the time he was 42. Holy shit. That gives me….well, I’d better get my skates on, that’s all I have to say). I was chairing the panel, a job I know less than zero about, so I watched Question Time a few times to follow how D-Dimb did it- apparently it was all about taking the glasses off and on a lot, and looking quizzical and bemused at everyone else’s stupidity. I decided to freestyle.

VIP section in the master’s Lodge.
This was a bit more awkward, as we were all perched on a table so small I can only describe it as indecently cosy. It felt like a remake of the Human Centipede. And we were treated to a single microphone between us, which turned what might have been an easy conversation into the driest Karaoke session ever. Oh, and we got more of ‘those’ questions from some people, although thankfully by this point it was more moderately distributed, something no doubt helped by the fact that I had forgotten the session finished ten minutes earlier than it did, and I left the audience about five minutes to get it all off their chest. There was a point when Sewell was describing his education: ‘I was in a failing school…that failed. Then I became a teacher in a school…that failed too.’ And I thought, ‘F*ck me- you’re a jinx.’ Didn’t say it, though.

And I met Katherine Birbalsingh. Nicely enough, John d’Abbro introduced us after the panel, and I have to say that, despite her portrayal in the left-leaning press (normally so considered, unpartisan and reflective), she is apparently devoid of hoof and horn. She was, in fact, a confident, charming and gracious woman who genuinely believes that education is vital. And as I talked with both of them, a truism floated into view: that, despite the blog-fog, and the smoke and heat generated by the media, most people in education share an enormous amount of common ground. If you put any of us into a classroom, I bet most of us would move in ways similar enough to each other to identify us of the same taxonomic group: teacherus professionalis. There are differences in method and means, but the impulse is the same- the education, the welfare of children. That is the axiom that unites us all. As long as you possess that, then you are part of a community that should spend more time standing up for itself, and less time throwing stones at each other in pointlessness and pettiness. I have a few reservations about the Free School movement, but those reservations aren’t enough to make me wish her anything but the greatest of success in her project. She struck me as possessed of laser-like focus and self belief. Small empires have been formed with less.

I might also say that Phil Beadle is unmistakable; there was something profoundly out of place about him at Wellington College, and I mean that as a compliment. He has an intensity and passion that is palpable. He absolutely is the real deal. Example: the title of the session was ‘How can schools be turned around?’ Rather than simply hack away at anything bowled at him, his first statement to the audience was, ‘Why on earth should I claim to be an expert on that? I’m a teacher. I can only proceed on the basis that a school is a series of classrooms.’ That, I imagine is a rarity- a man prepared to undersell himself in a situation where adding an imaginary mark-up would not only be unnoticeable, but also expected by some. 

He asked me at the end, ‘So just who is this Old Andrew bloke?’ and just as I was about to decide how to reply, he was swamped by a fan, or a rep, or agent or something. Little did he know that Old Andrew stood not three feet away……casting no shadow, no, nor reflection neither…

Outside I chatted to J-Dabb, saluted the Gods of teaching in joy at a job at least efficaciously  performed, and made the rest of my weekend. My knotted stomach was now free to enjoy the bounty of the hospitality arm of the festival, which was, I have to say, bounteous- there were secret kitchens, gardens and seating areas for the blessed of invite, favoured by the Festival’s Righteous Lanyard of Privilege. We were cosseted in the Master’s Lodge, Seldon’s modest cottage garret where he devises new ways of manufacturing Golden, Utopian children from the rough clay of the super rich. I can confirm that there were confectionaries and refreshments in abundance, and a stepped, tailored garden so heart-breakingly, Platonically ideal that it could have served as a murder scene in Inspector Morse. It was THAT pleasant. It was an elegant eyrie of agreeable beverages and reading material. As I came out of the bathroom, an enormous security man asked me, ‘Is that a toilet?’ to which the only answer I could honestly give by that point was, ‘I hope so.’

Of course, the headline act, the Beyonce Knowles of the Day was the Big Beast himself, Michael Gove. The Marquis (or Pyramid Stage) was predictably packed, but I wangled my way to near the front. Anthony Seldon himself introduced him in that strange, almost apologetic way that expresses a lifetime of weariness at the intellectual poverty of the dreadful people he has to meet. I missed his opening speech in the morning (I was busy willing my arrhythmic heart back into a pattern more conducive to metronomic employment in the car park, self medicating with cigarettes and happy thoughts) but despite his gnomic portrayal of a cynical Shylock, he had presence, a dry charm and a Leviathan confidence- and why shouldn’t he? The wizard was in his tower- that could launch a rocket. There was much to disagree with what he said, but you would be a braver man than I, Gungha Din, if you stood up and said so. I found his views on education relentlessly progressive- he spoke about the need for student voice (don’t get me started- I’ll pop something), the need for schools to teach creativity, the need for the teacher to be the facilitator, that kind of stuff- his children take classes in confidence (can you imagine? What do they do to children who aren’t sufficiently confident, I wonder? Shout at them?), and lessons on happiness (which I was busily puncturing with my mighty lance in the library earlier on. Maybe he heard me).

You see, that might work in Wellington- the children are supported, functional, lifted up by family networks that value education, that teach the child that he or she can be anything they want. These aren’t children who have been told they’re automatic failures- that they shouldn’t kid themselves on by having aspirations. These are children who can be comfortably invited to contribute student voice, because it will invariably be characterised by self restraint, consideration for altruism, and their duties to the community. East End kids aren’t shaped by this sense of noblesse oblige. They have other things to worry about.

My worry- and it is an enormous worry, and a legitimate one- is that the people who characterise themselves as the guardians of education- the ones who actually have the power to transform and transfigure education in the UK- have got it into their heads that the private sector model is the one that should form the blueprint of the state. And this is disastrous. It’s the same problem when we have a front bench, and a stream of education ministers who have, almost without exception, emerged from the womb of the independent sector. The only time they see the inside of a state school is when they’re visiting it with cameras. And of course it would be far too much to expect anything like an education minister who has actually educated anyone in a state school. We are the single most unrepresented majority in the education establishment today- and yet we are the biggest ball to play with, the biggest prize to paw at. This is the danger of equating state and independent.

So when I hear someone from the private sector tell me that state children need happiness lessons; that student voice will transform and soothe the wounds of our weeping classrooms, and that all teachers need to do is to treat the child as a holistic unit, and let all that lovely learning flow out, rather than restricting it with nasty boundaries and regulation, then I consider such commentators to be well meaning, but ignorant. These are children who already lack boundaries; who are already given too much of a voice in their education, to the exclusion of teachers; who need to be supported by boundaries, particularly in situations where they receive none at home. And as for creativity, may I remind the world, that approximately a third of our national curriculum is devoted to art, English, design, expressive arts, drama, and so on? Creativity cannot be taught by itself; it is always taught through the medium of other subjects. And happiness is a cretinous aim by itself. Heroine makes you happy, in a way. Shall we ask the dealers into the classroom?

And how far are we asking schools to intervene in the role of the parent and carer? And how well do we understand the nature of being happy anyway? Let’s see those hands…

To be continued…

Next instalment:

Gove’s speech, and day Two: Starkey’s Junk, the tears of a yummy mummy, and Birbal sings.

Sunday Times Festival of Education: ‘Glastonbury for swots’.

Just finished 2 days at the Sunday Times Educational Festival. I feel pedagogically clobbered. However, I now have enough celebrity edublog material to last a month. Bear with me as I enter my decompression bathysphere and learn to breathe East End economy air. It was like Valhalla for educational navel-gazers; ‘Swot’s’ Glastonbury’ as A A Gill called it. What with that and the Dream School Educational Select committee, I’m in danger of needing a clone to meet my self imposed requirement to exhaustively record and unpack every edu-meme of trivia I can. I shall not let you down. Watch this space.

Social mobility, the Olympic Games, and justice in schools

‘Where’s my cake!’

Fair’s fair- beyond that, your guess is as good as mine.

Let’s say I bring a cake to the party- I’m like that- and we decide to split it between all ten of us (obviously it’s not much of a party, unless Dita Von Teese, Tom Jones and Gandhi are involved). What would be a fair way of dividing it up? Ignore, for the minute, the cack-handed crumb-bath that would normally ensue when a civilian attempts to cut a cake into anything other than four pieces (and even that’s a struggle for some- in my previous career running restaurants, I saw innumerable birthday confections sliced up lengthways. I fuss you not).

The obvious answer is cutting it into ten equal pieces- that’s fair, right? Everyone gets the same amount, and justice is served, like gazpacho, cold.

But hang about- what if one of the party members (let’s say…A C Grayling has dropped in) hates cake. Can’t stand the stuff. Would it be fair to give him something he doesn’t want? Furthermore, what if another guest is fasting for Pentecost, or Hallowe’en or something? He doesn’t need it at all. Meanwhile, you discover that another of your guests is starving (Imogen Thomas?)- shouldn’t he get a bigger piece? And what about you- you made the bloody thing. Don’t you at least deserve to lick the spoon? And- oh dear- it’s someone’s birthday…

Unfair possessor of a Triple-Y chromosome.

Fair’s fair- that much is certain; but beyond that, it’s anyone’;s guess. There are so many ways of discussing distributive justice (the given name of the concept) that it becomes obvious that justice- getting what you deserve- is a will o’ the wisp, a phantom, a late night taxi.

I’ve been thinking about justice lately, mainly because of the Olympic scandal that’s been rocking out of every media portal the last few weeks; apparently it has become compulsory for every news report on 2012 to be padded out with several minutes of hatchet-faced misanthropes desperate to have a good moan at the camera. ‘I never got a ticket,’ they say. ‘And I’m British!’ or something. I mean, it’s a valid factual point to make- many people failed to receive the tickets they desired- but it’s a fairly thin scandal to dwell on.

The latest one was on the news last night; the Stratford Olympic committee had, in an attempt to win the hearts and minds of the locals, invited hundreds of residents and knitting bees onto the newly- minted lawns of the Olympic village, for tea and biscuits. Even the weather was on its best behaviour. The aim was to show them how egalitarian the whole affair was- even if they couldn’t attend an event, the Olympic zone itself was open to all, and people could soak up the atmospehre. Were they pleased? Not a bit of it.

‘We didn’t get any tickets,’ said another identical, bitter would be Olympian, her life dream of attending the Men’s canoe slalom shattered, torn from her paws as soon as it came into view. ‘It’s a scandal.’ And another complimentary scone vanished into the moist, dark, velvet interior of her mono-toothed mouth.

Well, a scandal? Watergate it isn’t. Her complaint, echoed in part by many others, was that as a local resident she should have been allocated priority tickets. Oh, and free ones, I might add. Which is interesting- distributive justice as defined by proximity. There’s a Gregg’s The Baker not two hundred yards from me; perhaps I deserve a bag of Yum-Yums due to the fact that I can see them from my window, the selfish bastard? Our oppressed heroine, I might add hadn’t applied for any tickets either. But she was pretty sure she deserved them.

Olympic bike: wouldn’t last long in Stratford.

I pity the Olympic Committee (and believe me, it’ll be a few trips round the Milky Way before I say that again about Seb Coe and Princess Anne); I’m not sure how they were supposed to play it in order to satisfy the hitherto unknown public passion for distributive justice in matters Olympic. People who have never before even considered attending a women’s Pentathlon at their local sports field are spitting feathers about their God-Given right to watch one next year. Thomas Paine, I imagine, is weeping somewhere, and spinning like Robin Cousins.

Damned whether you do or don’t: the tickets were issued on a lottery system- all bids were taken, limits set, tickets priced in bands, and then an enormous game of virtual roulette took place, matching desire to destiny in as random a manner as possible. Now forgive me, but that sounds bloody fair to me. Financial barriers to justice were reduced by keeping prices low for all but the seats on the frickin’ track itself.  A system of collecting all the bids before allocation meant that it wasn’t a first-come-first severed situation. Computer allocation ensured that name, rank and connections were dispelled as contributory factors. And still, many did not receive. Well, boo-hoo-hoo; isn’t life dreadful? I imagine the orphans of Haiti are saying prayers for us as we speak, thanking their lucky stars that all they have to cope with is despair, penury and natural disaster, rather than the privation of disappointment in matters athletic.

Justice is a funny thing. It’s an intrinsic of social justice, a concept so rarely out of the papers and the speeches of Masters of the Universe that I suspect that it’ll be dating one of the sinister, pneumatic homunculi from TOWEI soon, and launching an injunction to prevent details of its extra marital affairs tickling the Tweetosphere. Social justice is an interesting idea- that distribution extends far beyond mere financial considerations- although that of course is an intrinsic part of the equation- but also referring to the distribution of opportunity, privilege, honour, access, and a million other aspects of a life lived in the company of others.

This idea drenches modern thinking on education- and quite right too; Plato’s idea of the Gold, Silver and Bronze man, born to different stations, and bound for different destinies, is rightly reviled as a jailer’s manifesto. Of course, this is how life still works out, but I can hesitantly claim confidence in saying that it shouldn’t be anyone’s idea of Utopia. We intuitively appreciate the concept that merit should be intrinsic to advancement in life, and schools should seek to support this, at least in a structural way. I am wary of positive discrimination for the simple reason that replacing one injustice for another doesn’t appeal, and is usually perpetrated out of a misplaced sense of cultural guilt. Besides, such policies are also usually created by people who will be perfectly unaffected by their outcomes- in other words, let the injustice be shuffled around the board a little, and hope that will serve.

Lady Justice after the re-branding.

It certainly won’t. The aim of any policy aimed at social justice should be the increase of the sum total of that justice, not the redistribution of injustice to other squares on the board. Social mobility works both ways, of course, and one often ignored factor in the equation is that when one counter moves up the table a space, another counter often moves down. That’s why I’m broadly against schemes that offer preferential entrance at University level for Free School Meal candidates- penalising the children of the affluent may satisfy some misplaced sense of entitlement, but it’s as vicious and unfair as any other discrimination. It cuts, you see, both ways. We cannot claim justice only for one segment of the public demographic, and deny it to another. That dichotomy cuts into the heart of the deontological nature of the concept itself. Justice is universalised, or it is not justice, however much we sympathise with the outcome.

Many attempts at improving social justice in education are well meant but equally fruitless. Exhibit A: preferring therapeutic behaviour management techniques for children from disadvantaged backgrounds. The idea, now perfectly common in many schools, that we should avoid giving clear boundaries to pupils from economically impoverished families. The argument goes that these pupils should be taught emotional intelligence through the medium of therapy, discussion, pointless, heart breaking chats and continuous appeasement, rather than establishing rules, rewards and sanctions in a clear and dignified process that actually values the person’s status as an autonomous human being.

Another enemy of social justice: target grades, as provided by organisations such as the Fisher Family Trust and other, equally diabolic Factories of Satanism. Why? Because every time I look a the target data for a pupil and see an F, I think to myself, ‘How utterly pointless.’ What a lousy, cruel non-aspiration for any student. You know what my targets for all my students are? An A. That’s not to say I expect that they will all get there. Nor do I berate them if they don’t get it. But what I won’t do is expect them to scrape by. I refuse to communicate the low aspirations that society has for these pupils. They already have low enough aspirations for themselves, often communicated and reinforced by their families, their cultures, their peer groups, or whatever. I refuse to collaborate in their oppression.

Instead, I expect the best from them. I expect them to aim for an A. I expect them to hand their homework in on time; to turn up on time, every day possible, and have equipment. I expect manners. They can expect pretty much the same from me. That way, I don’t treat them as helpless victims of circumstance. I don’t treat them as if they were shackled to their caste. And I certainly don’t expect them to be anything less than their fullest potential. This is, of course a recipe for perpetual disappointment; but it also provides the ingredients for the occasional six-star firework, exceeding even my own expectations.

I learned a lesson a long time ago: one of my boys in the bottom set scraped a C at GCSE short course. Out of sympathy for his resilience (the class was pandemonium- I had just started teaching, and was as effective as a soluble prophylactic), I allowed him onto the R.S. A level. He got a U for the first year, of course. Again, I was moved by compassion, but insisted that in order to proceed, he resit all papers. At the final A2 exam he scored an A. Life permits an X-factor; not some silly vaudeville talent, but an unknown element of change, resilience, excellence and awe. Call it the Shavian life force, call it a gap in Universal Causation, call it free will, call it a soul. But it resists prediction; it thrives on encouragement, and effort, and willpower. It is fuelled by faith, and optimism. Like love, it is the great current that propels evolution, and civilisation and wonder.

But it can be burdened and bound, buried and distracted from its own purpose. We can teach the children that we expect them to get an F. We can applaud them when they do so, or nearly do so, or do anything at all that they choose. We can embed in them, not a sense that anything is possible, but that anything is acceptable. And then we should resign, not fit for purpose.

Fair is a small word that, mined for a moment, gives birth to a hydra of meaning. But it doesn’t mean anything; it must mean something, or it means nothing at all. And fair means giving the children who need it most, the most boundaries and direction; giving them aspirations where none existed before. It means rules guided by love, and faith tempered with self-restraint.

I didn’t get the tickets I bid for, incidentally. It’s a bleedin’ scandal.

The Bizarro World of Education: Jamie’s Dream School is BACK!

‘Hoorah! ONSTED!’

‘This is the stewardess speaking: does anyone know how to fly a plane?’

Oh boy, oh boy, oh BOY, am I happy- and for all the wrong reasons. I was going to write about so many things today, but now, now there’s only one game in town, and it is righteous: the news that Jamie’s Dream School, my all time favourite piece of pedagogic TV, is back in the news- and for all the wrong reasons. It’s like Christmas for edusphere bloggers like myself, and this time they’ve served up a turkey so large you could saddle it and ride it through Admiralty Arch.

The House of Commons Education Select Committee ‘regularly meets with representatives from across the education sector, including students, parents, teachers, social workers, inspectors and academics’, or so its website says. And who, in its infinite wisdom has it decided to consult on the realities of mainstream education, and the challenges facing pupils, teachers and educators? Why, the Dons and Alumni of TV’s Dream School of Course! Fabulous, fabulous, fabulous. I am absolutely hugging myself with joy, and not simply because it gives me a chance to return to my favourite fictional subject since Mad Men series V got put on ice.

This is almost as good as  when they awarded Henry Kissinger the Nobel Peace Prize. Can you imagine the thinking that inspired this glorious piece of consultation? Education is famously in a permanent state of contention; manhandled and pawed at by every successive administration until it feels soiled and unchaste as a penny-dreadful heroine-in-distress; its aims and successes are never settled. It remains permanently open to speculation and endless adjustment. I’ve written before about the enormous intellectual and professional cavity that exists in education; that because hard science fails to rigorously establish the efficacy of one system over another, and because education itself is subject to redefinition so easily, that any number of oleaginous hoover-salesmen can bound down from the mountain top and claim the magic beans they have in their pocket are actually a beanstalk to academic success. There aren’t enough frying pans for the violence I would do to this clan.

But I had no idea that the cavity was so cavernous that you could reasonably assemble the cast of Gandhi inside it. Has the chair forgotten that Jamie’s Dream School, fabulous in so many ways as it was, was a school of twenty? That they were all post school age (i.e. adults, not school children any more)? That none of the teachers were qualified to teach? So: no students and no teachers. This is a school?

That the Head Master inexplicably had no powers of sanction other than, you know, sad eyes and the ‘I’m worried that we’re failing you,’ talk? That its sponsor was the fantastic but essentially, ‘nothing to do with education’ Jamie Oliver? That the curriculum was a Bizarro World impersonation of what they would study? That they were free to come and go as they pleased? That all the collective expertise of the ‘teachers’- which, focused on a single spot could have bored a hole through the Earth’s Crust- was essentially as useful as an ashtray on a hang glider?

This wasn’t a school. This was a circus of optimism, ambition and benevolence. Who will they ask next? Mr Chips? The cast of Waterloo Road? F*ck me, don’t give them any ideas.

The cast of TOWEI: not invited to the committee. Yet.

Of course, this isn’t to say that the people involved have nothing credible to say- Bad Boy D’Abbs is the respected Head of the New Rush Hall group- he’s got as valid an opinion as many, and more than some; Alvin Hall, David Starkey and Lord Winston and Mary Beard are no idiots (the mass of their combined education threatens to create a wormhole in Time and Space). And Lord Jazzy of B seems like a good and wise man. But in the same way that Jamie’s Dream School (the series) was far more successful as a mirror from which educational matters could be usefully teased and discussed (*gives a small girlish cough and winks*), the lessons to be learned from the school itself as an institution could be gleaned from one day in any mainstream comprehensive. The challenges that that Andrew Motion and Simon Callow faced in their lesson laboratories are the same ones that every teacher in the UK (and I imagine beyond) face on a daily basis. If you call a building, twenty kids and a dozen or so untrained teachers in the same place with TV cameras a ‘brave experiment in education’, then  I suppose it was.

But it wasn’t, it just wasn’t. It was a well meant attempt to solve the challenges of education that teachers have faced for thousands of years: how do you switch the kids on (answer: reboot switch under the scalp, like Westworld)? How do you maintain order (clue: create it) and so on. Plato, Avicenna, even Maria bleedin’ Montessori, have all had a pop at these questions before. The idea that ambition and warmth and subject expertise were the sole requirements for starting a school was touching, but wrong. It presumes that anyone can have a crack at it. How hard can it be? The school was based on the premise that teaching doesn’t require professional teachers- an axiom that, apparently the Education Select Committee shares.

And of course, it will surprise no one to hear that the first forty five minutes of the hearing will see selected students from the Dream school giving evidence to the Committee. Joy unlimited! That alone is worth my license fee for 2011, and on Tuesday the 21st of June, there’s only one thing my BT box will be set to- the Big Ticket Box Office of the Dream School Kids from Fame. I rejoice, and the world of teaching rejoices. Please, God, let Harlem return to the spotlight; if the BBC has any sense, they’ll revoke their clause prohibiting commercial broadcasting and turn it into a pay-per-view. I have my credit card ready.

‘Amongst the issues the Committee will explore are behaviour and discipline (a recurring theme in the series), curriculum and qualifications (including the importance of creative and practical learning), and teacher training and autonomy (in light of the Government’s Free Schools and Academies programmes).’

”Jamie’s Dream Hospital, hmmm…”

And what, I wonder, will be the input from our celebrity panel? Alvin Hall achieved some success by linking maths to their self interest; Mary Beard managed to get them feeling a bit sorry for her; Winston surprised them with Trumpian resources; Starkey took on Connor in what I thought was going to be the world’s weirdest rap battle. They all had some some success, a lot of failure, and all looked like they’d aged a decade through the experience. Hall successfully summed the pupils up as mostly childish and anti-entrepreneurial- full of desire but little ambition or strategy. They should invite Jamie’s Dinner Lady, who memorably chided him, saying, ‘You’ve created a beautiful world here for them, but it doesn’t exist.’ Here is wisdom.

The students’ input should be interesting. But then, student voice is terribly fashionable, isn’t it? Yes, that’s what education has been missing for centuries- the opinions of children. These students were given gratis education for well over a decade, and many of them blew it for all the usual reasons- misbehaviour, boredom and egotism. I despair when I see the flower of our youth offered the wisdom of centuries for free, and turn their noses up at it. It’s sad, and as teachers we work as hard as we can to see that it happens as rarely as possible. But there comes a point when people have to be held responsible for their own educations, when we can no longer say, ‘We’ve let them down’. There comes a point when we all- all of us- have to say, ‘I let myself down. No one else.’ The danger is, of course, that these students will be unable to realise that, for precisely the same reason that they gave school the bum’s rush in the first place- they can’t see how valuable it can be, and they can’t see that the world won’t bend over backwards to kiss their arses. Why should it?

One of Jamie’s themes was that if only the more creative subjects were encouraged, then many children would engage with school in a personal way. And there is truth in this- the thing is, though, that schools already do offer these subjects. As I mentioned in a recent post reply, the last time I checked, we had Music, Art, Design, Textiles, Expressive Arts, English, and that doesn’t even begin to include the enormous levels of creativity and artistry hard wired into the Humanities subjects like RS and Sociology, where interpretation and interaction with the content is vital to success. So where is this enormous deficit in creative and practical learning? It doesn’t exist. Some kids blow these subjects off too, just as surely as they flip the bird to Trigonometry and Boyle’s Law.

The main reason why some kids don’t succeed in school is because they choose not to work and learn. They choose, not life, but something else. They choose to do as they please. Teachers and parents need to help them learn the character assets of self restraint and dedication, but there is only so far that a teacher can make this happen, even a great one. The earlier they learn this the better. If they don’t learn it at an early age, then the gap between their possible learning and their actual learning gets wider and wider, until by the time we get them in secondary, some of them have been habituated into patterns of self-interest and whimsy, seemingly unable to grasp that the world exists as anything other than a nuisance, or as a conduit to their gratification. Kids of two see the world as an enormous solipsistic playground. By the time they hit GCSEs, you’re kind of hoping they’ve grown out of that. Some don’t.

But there may be Solomonic gems from them yet. I often meet kids on the street (because that’s how I roll) who have left school and confess that they mucked about too much, and wish they had done otherwise. It gives me no pleasure to hear this- I’d rather they applied themselves at the time it was most efficient- but at least they have grown that much, and perhaps they can take that lesson into the next phase of their lives. God knows, enough people mature at different rates and find their paths in their twenties or later. Life isn’t over until the flowers hit the lid.

Jamie’s Dream School. Episode 8. Tuesday 21st June, 10:00am. The Parliament Channel. My blog: possibly that night, depending on whether I can calm down enough.

Sympathy for the Devil

Poor old AC Grayling. While it might seem difficult to feel sorrow for the world famous, internationally renowned philosopher (poor him), the poor old pedgogue has been getting such a kicking this week that laboratory Beagles chipped in and sent him a card. His crime appears to be- and I am taking this on advice- that he had the temerity to say that he, and a Brains Trust of Olympian Alpha Eggheads have decided to set up the New Humanities College, in association with the University of London, issuing degrees.

‘Hitchens, you rotter! This was YOUR idea!’


To be honest, I’m vaguely at a loss as to see what’s actually so criminally wrong. I even read Terry Eagleton’s sermon and everything. I scanned Twitter (rapidly becoming my go-to source of veracity, even more than Wikipedia and tea leaves). Were I to encourage my neighbour’s elderly Labrador to take a poop in an empty cereal box, garnish it with Dolly Mixture, and advertise it on eBay for a fiver, whose business is it other than mine (and presumably, my by-now uncomfortable neighbour)? Is he hanging around the gates of the local primary school, dangling packets of black heroine? Has he recommended, as one immaculate Kuwaiti political candidate did this week, that conquered foreign nationals be legitimately used as sex slaves? Did he vote for Jean Martyn in the BGT finals?

No, he didn’t. He’s created a University (I believe that the very posh ones get called colleges again, in the same way that surgeons drop the doctor and chest-bump to Mr again)- well a virtual one at least. And the big fuss, it seems is that he’s charging a kidney and a mortgage for it. So what? Who’s business is that? If someone wants to do it, it’s no worse or better than the numerous ‘English Language’ colleges that used to dot the Bayswater road. I believe that setting up commercial training institutions is now common practise. Where’s the harm if Gray-lo wants to bum a pension from the parents of wealthy Brainiacs? Who does it hurt? If it does well, congratulations. If it goes nipples-up, then chalk one up to bad management. Never trust a philosopher with money- they’ll only remind you that value is an abstract, relative concept with no intrinsic substance. Then they’ll beg a fag off you because they’re skint.

Have I missed something? Eagleton apears to be hopping up and down and I can’t quite see why- every one of is arguments is boiling with insubstantiality.

‘If a system of US-type private liberal arts colleges like this one gains ground in Britain, the result will be to relegate an already impoverished state university system to second-class status.’  

If the streets were made of trifle, we’d all be wearing wellies. If we all saved up, we could buy the world a coke. If, if, if. Let the rich send their children to Welsh mines, Gretna Green or wherever they want. How on earth does it concern anyone else how they choose to educate their- adult-, remember- children? The state can provide for the VAST majority who can’t afford the Mega-fees of the NCH and its ilk.

Rich people are taxed, I believe. Those taxes help pay for state Universities, schools, and everything else. The rest of their money is theirs to do with as their delicate fancy possesses them. A C Grayling has slogged away in the Logic Mines all his life. Academia is an occupation rich in A-Team magnificence, light in remuneration. Who is to stand between this man and his high end Evening School? How will it even knock a pebble from the edifice of state tertiary education? 

Trying to explain himself at the recent talk in Foyles, he was greeted with smoke bombs, preventing him from speaking. Who on Earth do these people think they are defending?  Take your smoke bombs, and your righteous, infantile fury and let them detonate in every fee paying educational institution in every high street in every borough, from home tutor centres to adult education classes. Take your placards and your fury to every private school and independent boarder in the country. And ask yourself, Who are we fighting for? It’s enough to make poor ACG think the barbarians are back.

And it’s Two weeks until the Sunday Times Festival Of Education, where both D’Abbs and ACG will be speaking. If anyone gets a smoke bomb out they’ll feel the toe of my shoe.

Deliver Us- the miracles that education reform needs.

‘Turn to the person next to you and tell them what you hope to achieve!’

Education is a bit like Doctor Who right now. We’ve had Tom Baker, and the unmentionable McCoy, and now it’s regenerating into a new character, and everyone’s hugging each other with excitement about which handsome English character actor will be piloting the blue box. As a result, everyone is (once again) discussing which magic bullet education needs now. If you’re stupid, or worse, if you’re stupid and you believe grim fairy tales like Shift Happens, or most anything by Ken Robinson, you’d be forgiven (almost) for thinking that schools need to be torn apart and rebuilt for the 23rd century, or something, so that we don’t get left behind by Tonga, or the Nordic miracle. 

Or perhaps you believe (because you’d believe anything) that children no longer need to be taught content in an age of Google, and that skills, yes skills I say, are the way to transform our lumpen generation into perfected ubermenschen. Maybe you also believe that fairies drop crumbs of sleepy dust into the corners of your eyes at night, and Simon Cowell allows fair and free electoral data to determine the outcomes of his slavish vaudeville. Perhaps, perhaps.

If, like me, you occasionally inhabit the virtual world of people who care about education, you would be struck immediately by how partisan and troubled it all is. There is, it seems, an enormous lack of consensus about not only how to cure the patient, but what, in fact is wrong with it. We all appear to be like medieval sawbones, standing over a pale victim- some recommend leeches, others decry that as barbarism, and recommend water treatments; another swears by arsenic…meanwhile the patient whispers, ‘I’m not dead yet!’ while John Cleese hits him with a frying pan and tells him to keep his mouth shut.
What are the main problems?

1. Everyone has an opinion about what to do with education, except teachers. 

Who decides policy? Ministers (and increasingly since the eighties, the PM’s office. Estelle Morris was rumored to have been so disheartened by the disintegration of her office’s power that she left her post). And education is so very, very attractive a department for any incoming regime. The Fascists were the first to realise this properly in the modern era- the Jesuit adage about being given a child and he will give you the man remains as true now as it did when it was first coined; although interestingly enough Napoleon also took a keen interest in education as a means of influencing the next generations. Why? Because it is far easier to influence the minds of children than adults; and because the most obvious way of instituting social change (for fair means or foul) lies in moulding the impressionable minds of those who will succeed you- it is hoped, at least.

Policy is now decided by ministers. The CfBC did an interesting survey on this last year, and found that the main reasons why ministers preferred one policy over another was for the following reasons: 

  • Ideology- does the policy fit their political world view? 
  • Personal experience- what kind of schooling did they receive?
  • Anecdotal- what kind of stories have they heard from friends and other people they trust?
  • Financial reasons- Can we afford it? 
  • Popularity- no democratic elected representative can ignore the phone-in vote
  • International Comparisons- also known as the ‘do they do it in Finland?’ factor. Dear God, give me strength. Are we Finland? No. I consider the case closed. Can we stop going on about f*cking Finland, please?

Research came an unfashionable, embarrassing sickly last. Actually I’m not devastated by this- for reasons I’ll explain- but there is something more interesting here: decisions get made concerning teachers that have almost no input from teachers themselves. Certainly no direct input. I don’t mean the Education Committees that meet every so often with the odd appearance from Sir Alan Steer or the Head of Ofsted, or something. It is, and remains, appalling that so much is decided for teachers, by people who have never taught. By people who have never set foot in a classroom, unless it was being painted for their sainted inspection. By people who have- and I tread softly here- have never experienced what it means to be in a mainstream comprehensive. Personally I have no axe to grind with the independents- if you want to drop a few suitcases of green on your kids’ education, be my guest. But how realistic is it for someone who has never been taught in the state system to have an informed opinion about how such institutions should run?

State education is an enormously different beast from the private sector, in terms of intake, in terms of demographics, of parental support, of pupil motivation, self-image…a whole host of factors that means that state schools are not the same species as private schools, in the same way that lap dancing clubs are not tea rooms, although they might follow a similar economic model (OH, the humanity. the crumbs…) Gaze lovingly across the CVs of the past twenty or so Education ministers and PMs: not an enormous amount of experience in the state sector, I think you’ll find. 

So that’s problem number one: state education (and let’s face it, when we discuss education reform, that’s really the sector we’re talking about) is moulded and sculpted by hands unfamiliar with the clay it holds. Have you read Peter Hyman’s excellent (if chilling) ‘One out of Ten’? Hyman was an assistant to Blair (and Brown before him) in the glory days, who later went into teaching and is now, I understand setting up a Free School. Read the book; the accounts about how education policy was created on the hoof, on the way to meetings, in order for it to sound good, so it would impress an audience…it nearly makes you want to give up. It was almost entirely based on expediency and ideology. At no point did anyone say, ‘You know what? Let’s ask some teachers.’ A decade (plus change) later, and teaching was buried under the weight of geological layers of good intentions and late-night ruminations. All created by people who never went to a state school, let alone taught in one. 

Does that sound crazy to you? It certainly sounds crazy to me. Of course, we might expect and frankly understand) any government that wanted to claim the right to direct the aims of education, or at least be present at the conception of the values and content that we as a society deliver to the next generation. They are (as our elected reps) paying for it, after all. I’m not suggesting a return to the Secret Garden (although it sounds like it would make a delightful Enid Blyton romp). But increasingly as the years rolled by, successive wallahs from the Ministry of Silly Teaching  have thought that they had some jolly good ideas about how classrooms should be run, even down to the minutia of how we teach. And why not? Teaching is a piece of piss. Anyone could do it. Roll up, roll up, come and throw a coconut at the teachers, they love it.

People seem to feel that, because they once sat in a classroom, that they have expertise on not only the nature of teaching, but the professional execution of said profession. Which is funny, because I’ve been teaching for almost a decade now, and I still feel that I have an enormous amount to learn- and I’m regarded as being a safe pair of hands, frankly. Still, I’m sure that as long as you have a rough idea which way to hold an IWB open, you can have a crack at it. Perhaps I’ll pop into the nearest car workshop and tell the grease monkeys how to strip an engine, shall I? Or maybe I should drop into the next cabinet meeting on the spending review and tell them how to balance the books. Like I say, piece of piss.

‘I have seen the promised land. No student voice.’

Net result? Well meaning but inane pieces of professional intrusion that simply take time away from teachers doing what we get paid the big bucks to do- teach.. Such as:

  • Three part lessons
  • Group work
  • Independent learning
  • Thinking skills
  • Compulsory starters and plenaries
  • Showing evidence of progress…within a lesson
  • Learning styles
  • Student voice

To name but a few. All of them charming. All of them  brainless, at least as the dogma they have become in education. If I hear another NQT fretting because he’s spending more than three minutes talking at the kids, and he’s worried that he’s not allowing them to interact with the material more -if he is allowed to actually teach any- then I think I’ll spanner myself. There exists within education, and enormous intellectual vacuum, which is easily filled by thousands of maggoty consultant Charlies, who are often closer to vile Shamanic conmen than actual real people.

 Which brings me to the next point:

2. I bet this’ll work.  

Education, despite every attempt to do so, simply resists attempts to be reduced to the state of a natural science. Although scientists have for over a century and a half been trying to apply the empirical scientific technique to education, it won’t be manhandled that way. Social science is not comparable to natural sciences. Natural sciences are easy to control for, to randomise, to double blind, the whole nine yards. Social sciences suffer from what Feynman referred to as having a high causal density. In other words, it’s incredibly hard to see if your new technique is having a result or not.

Example: you want to see if using open questions aids student learning. So you set them a test before you start; then you use the questioning technique you want to study, and then you set them another test. Then you see if it worked. Simple?

‘No, I won’t let your people go through to the next round.’

Of course not. You can never know if they were learning in a better way- perhaps they were all on the verge of a breakthrough already- and you can never know if your new technique was the thing that caused a difference, even if any is recorded. After all, you set them different tests to analyse the potential differences. Perhaps they understood the wording of the question  better? And so on.

Social science has yet to provide any significant predictive powers to practitioners in the classroom. This maddens bad scientists, who want to claim it has the same status as biology or physics. It does not. It is, at best, a commentary on humanity, and context is all. Of course, good social scientists know this. It’s only the people who commission research, the ones who have a vested interest in the answer, who corrupt the process.

As I say, into this intellectual vacuum has stepped an army of creepy gurus, school messiahs and experts, whose expertise usually runs to a degree in psychology rather than any experience of teaching. I like to point out at his stage that John Dewey, the Great Satan himself was an elementary school teacher for a few years before he jacked it in and decided to rewrite the book on how children should learn and be taught. The internet is full of them- ghouls who charge for their services, whose literature is dripping with promises about how kids really learn, how schools really work. They keep me awake at nights. Some of them have even taught (or more often, ‘Have taught in some of the hardest schools in the world, and devised a simple three step plan for student success!’ or some such Lovecraftian horror.)

Social science is useful in teaching when it seeks to discover what is going on in classroom; when it seeks to discover what we should do, it treads on Holy ground. Remove your shoes, scientist. 

This intellectual vacuum is also occupied by another plague: the social reformer. They see schooling as the answer to every ill of society, and believe that if they can educate children into appropriate moral and social habits, then as adults they will inhabit a collective space of utopian realised bliss. Teen pregnancies too high? Teach contraception in PAL. Nobody voting anymore? Teach them Citizenship (which is a child without a father if ever I saw one). In fact, Citizenship is the perfect example of this syndrome; nobody was crying out for Citizenship; no teacher, no student ever thought, you know what we’re missing? A new subject that teaches us all about the Houses of Parliament and local government. Well, Citizenship has been running for a decade or two. Have we seen an improvement in civic responsibility? Or even something as measurable as voting proportions? I’ll give you a clue; the answer isn’t yes.

If society has ills, then school cannot be the cure for those ills. We are there to teach children their great cultural and intellectual inheritance. As adults and role models we of course participate in their socialisation as moral beings, but this isn’t something you can directly impart, unless you fancy living in Sparta or Nazi Germany. Well, DO YOU?

So here’s my manifesto for schools:

  1. Improve teacher training for behavior management
  2. Remove any constraints on schools excluding unruly students (while retaining an expectation that a school should be able to justify its decision and show due process)
  3. Open (or reopen) special units for excluded children where they can receive the care and education they need without perpetually ruining the education of millions of other children. These units can be on-site or off- and reintegration can be an option if improvement is shown, but shouldn’t be expected as an inevitability.
  4. Drop the proposed Teacher Code of Conduct, so long as it includes requirements upon a teacher’s personal life. Such requirements, if they are not covered by law, are no one’s business but the teachers. We don’t need further instructions about what to do.
  5. Retain the teaching colleges. They might be flawed, but at least they try to uphold an intellectual rigour in the profession. Learning on the job might work for a very, very select few, but it’s lambs to the slaughter for many. And it guarantees that the teacher will routinely only be trained to the level of the best teacher training them in school. This denies the teacher the intellectual inheritance of his professional forbearers. 
  6. Impose an inspection requirement of minimum levels of behavior on schools; schools failing to meet required standards to undergo ‘support’ to restore order and authority in classrooms, so that children can learn in a safe and structured environment. Of course, by support, I mean the kind of professional ass-kicking that the doublethink word usually implies.
  7. Stop pretending that various silly articles of non-science have any empirical validity at all- learning styles, my giddy aunt. Stop telling us how to teach, for God’s sake.
  8. Allow teachers to teach any way they jolly please, so long as results are reasonably good. 
  9. Stop using levels. Christ almighty. And sublevels….you might have to tie me down in a minute.
  10. Drop FFT data from individual pupil’s performance targets. It’s not what it’s for, yet schools till use it as gospel, and not the awkward hoodoo- voodoo it actually is. I imagine people who work at the FFT dress up as astrologers and cut open chicken entrails to read the signs, the signs. Because that’s what they bloody well seem to do. ‘This child will grow up to be a beauty…and a great leader…and have a 65% chance of  level six in his year 9 tests, arr…’
  11. Put a bullet through the head of SEAL. And Citizenship. And Thinking Skills, for that matter. 
  12. Make senior managers from schools all the way up to ministry level who object to any of this teach for a dozen lessons a week in a challenging school- and not  their own- to remind them what it’s actually like dealing with difficult classes without adequate support.

The thing that really angers me is that there are so many people who want to stick their oar into education, all of them kind hearted, I’m sure, and all of them coming from a beautiful place in their own minds. But they remind me of Jamie Oliver in his ill-fated Dream School. He thought that all they needed was love and inspiration- which no one objects to in a fuzzy, general way, but good sentiments aren’t enough to teach children. They need structure and love simultaneously. they need to be taught to restrain themselves as well as express their beautiful inner butterflies. The people who often run education, who shout loudest about education, who have influence and clout in education- are often the ones who know least about it.

And the scary thing is that they see themselves as liberators. They think they’re Moses, come to free the slaves. They don’t realise that they’re actually Pharaoh, keeping them in bondage. They don’t know anything about teaching.

Well, I am a teacher. I teach.

And I say, let my people Go.