It’s 2017 – What on Earth can we do?

Though I felt I would have preferred to be at home drinking cocoa, I played saxophone for a small, local gig on New Year’s Eve. The revelry seemed suitably subdued as the clock struck midnight and the guitarist wished me a ‘Happy New Year’, saying that there was no way 2017 could possibly be worse than 2016. I sadly disagreed and prophesied that we would look back on 2016 as the last year of Recognisable Things before we really began to notice that nothing was ever the same again.

Anyone who has read my blogs before will see that they tend not to be very upbeat, generally. Nobody would describe me as a ‘bubbly’ personality and  I’m generally inspired to write when I have something to critique. As much as I admire spirit-lifting attempts, I perceive them as fundamentally flawed and self-centred in the sense that they seem to ignore reality.

So how do I manage to work with primary school pupils? Basically, I lie by omission. I can not possibly tell them what I believe their future holds and were I to openly discuss with them what’s going on in the world, I would risk censure for ‘extremist views’.

It was in a staff room, over 20 years ago, that I said that I was pretty sure that climate change would be the biggest challenge we would face in the new millennium. The reaction then was along the lines of, ‘Oh, really? Is that because of CFCs and things? I don’t really know much about it. We can’t be doom-mongers. Well I’m not really into the environment and all that – it’s more your sort of thing.’ Over the decades, everything that I said was likely to happen, has happened and sadly, the reaction I get now is pretty much the same, in spite of the global scientific consensus and the general acceptance that it is no longer a conspiracy.

On a day-to-day basis, I engage with the business of ‘business as usual’, and in 2016 I made some efforts to push against what I felt to be detrimental to the education of our pupils. I actively responded to every government consultation and was gratified to give evidence on primary assessment to the Education Select Committee. I try to promote an agenda that a quality education is a global citizen entitlement and is not about toxic notions of ‘attainment’ and ‘social mobility’. I agree that curriculum subjects should be rigorously taught by teachers with excellent subject knowledge and I welcome the increase in attention to evidence over mythology. Perverse incentives aside, I do continue to try to do my best to develop pupils’ knowledge and understanding in the ‘core’ and ‘foundation’ subjects of our National Curriculum, as though the future will resemble the past. Deep down, I have misgivings; I probably should spend more time teaching them basic survival skills. From how things are currently panning out, the next few decades will be an escalation of the challenges we have faced this year:

It was wrong to make heroes of those who have climbed the greasy pole over their fellows, those who have risen to the top of their chosen career and gained huge amounts of wealth, and those who have dominated nations through displays of power and authority, because their big noise drowned out the voices of reason to which we should have listened and now we have to face the consequences as well as we can. Knowing that we have tipped the climate balance, it’s very difficult to see how things could improve or even stay the same but there is something to do.

If things are going to get a lot trickier, then I see that there is a need to remember that many of us are not psychopaths. We know about co-operation, consideration and compassion and we should exercise these. If we possess the trait of empathy, we know about the suffering of others and we have to be kinder – to humans and non-human animals. If we know the difference, we need to be emphatically better to each other, because there are those who will be emphatically worse. How we treat each other should be a matter of concern – in school, the supermarket, on the road, and in our (t)wittering online which appears often to deteriorate into childish insults and point-scoring. If we have the wit, let us use it to exercise consideration and circumspection in 2017.

Too much stirring is spoiling the pudding

The world of education seems to me to be currently in a state of frenzy, particularly in England, but probably fuelled in good part by US ideology. Teachers, like myself, who actually read the bulletins, follow the research, go on facebook, watch the news etc., (maybe there are some that do none of these) are assailed from all directions, with the underlying message that something must be done. For example – in random order:

  • RI/Good/Outstanding
  • Ofsted’s new directives
  • Just Ofsted!
  • Coasting schools
  • Failing teachers
  • Failing heads
  • Teachers want to leave
  • Workload
  • The New Curriculum is good/bad/indifferent
  • Mastery
  • Levels were a bad idea
  • Assessment for Learning is a wonderful thing
  • Progressivism was a terrible idea
  • Trojan horses
  • Text books are great/not great
  • Phonics is good (as is grammar!)
  • Academies will save us/damn us all
  • Parents have the right to choose
  • State schools should be more like private schools
  • Close the gap
  • Practice should be based on research – take your pick which piece
  • Marking is essential feedback/not essential/done badly
  • Independent learning
  • Individualised trajectories
  • Whole class teaching
  • Age related expectations
  • Progressive targets
  • Accountability measures
  • Observations are important/detrimental
  • New technologies are going to save us/damn us all
  • SMCS
  • British Values

I could go on, and readers of this blog could probably add hundreds more items to the list. When I read articles, blogs and research online, everyone has an opinion. Sometimes there is ‘evidence’, although not the kind of evidence that would be accepted within the ‘hard’ sciences. If we teachers were to try to take on board everything that they tell us, so that we are not ‘failing teachers’, we’d become useless. And what are all these methods, tools, strategies, for, exactly? An improvement in attainment of 3 months? Really? Is that anything? I meet successful former pupils – I can not begin to think how I can relate their success to something as nebulous as a 3 month difference in attainment in primary school, even if I could believe that such things can be measured. (In fact, give us that measuring tool – it would help us all a lot!). And then, what is the measure of their success? Are they making a useful contribution to the economy? Is that what it’s about? I really don’t think it is or that it should be. I would like it to stop, now. Nothing can operate well within a climate of such unremitting, frequent and conflicting input and I don’t believe it’s as complicated as all that. There have been successful educators in the past – we have to admit that teachers must have managed it before we had so many directives and all this ‘evidence based practice’. Some of my own teachers were brilliant, but that’s not even the issue. The responsibility for learning, lies with the learner, not the teacher! If we continue to believe we can ‘fix’ things by directing our remedies at the teachers, we’ll fail. The main issue with the teachers is not what they do but what they (don’t) know, and a focus on teaching distracts us from that issue. English teachers are themselves the product of the system and the result of a culture that has removed the responsibility of learning from the learner. I’ve seen this myself, where, if a teacher lacks subject knowledge (for example in the new computing requirements), they do nothing until the CPD is provided for them, yet we live in a technologically advanced world where access to information has never been easier. If we really want to remedy the ills of the English education system, we should:

  • stop making up new responsibilities for teachers
  • stop endlessly tweaking the system
  • recognise that we can’t ‘close the gap’*
  • require excellent subject knowledge
  • recognise that the learner is responsible for their learning

*’closing the gap’ is a phrase for another tirade. Try closing the gap between my sprinting time and that of Usain Bolt!