Here we go again. One minute it’s “back to the office”, the next it’s another 6 months of working from home. Heigh-ho, heigh-ho, it’s…wait, what? The pandemic, quite clearly, is a game changer, but this is the first time I’ve had to double-check the headlines each morning to actually understand what’s going on. When you write an article these days, you can rest assured that, within 48 hours, it will be utterly irrelevant. Schools and school children are familiar with this dance, though. It is ingrained in the yo-yo policies of mainstream education and it is, of course, what happened with the shambolic handling of exam results this summer; a week in which, regardless of the final outcome, the DfE managed to trample on teachers and students alike, thwarting progress for underpriviledged kids whilst deprofessionalising staff by the public rubbishing of their ‘inflated’ predications. The final pirouette hardly mattered because the damage was done and, for home educated candidates expecting to sit GCSE and A Level exams this summer, it is still ongoing. No exam, no hope of an “official” predicted grade and, for some, no refund. Why Exam Boards chose to ignore clear messages from the homeschooling community as far back as April, flagging up the potential issues in this area and presenting viable solutions, is anyone’s guess. But here we are. And I’m sorry to say it, but there’s something depressingly familiar about all this. Teachers suck lemons and shrink back behind their desks, while real human potential is severely impacted but not enough to dent the system. I want to say that it’s nobody’s fault, that schools simply operate “with all the inefficiency of large bureaucracies. (Ilich, 1970) But let’s be real, decisions are made in meeting rooms and the consequences are tangible. It couldn’t, surely, be a deliberate strategy of undermining teachers and closing doors for people pursuing alternative educational pathways, could it? Let’s take a closer look.
Teachers – traditionally left-wing and capable of mobilising when it comes to strikes – have always been a potentially disruptive group for government. Hence, humiliating well-intentioned teaching staff by making them dance to the tune of a redundant policy represents a familiar kick in the teeth that anyone who’s taught for more than half a decade might recognise. The term we all used in the middle of last decade, when Gove’s EBACC steamroller was duly abandoned and left to continue ravaging a few fields of potential before shuddering to a halt, was ‘blindsided’. I imagine that’s the general mood now. In 2004, Jeffrey and Woods published a revealing study of the emotional impact of an Ofsted inspection which took place at a single primary school, and the title of their paper – “Feeling Deprofessionalised” – still rings true today. Feelings of worth and professional capability, the study argues, have long been neglected in school-based research, due to the predominance of a “cold-eyed, scientific approach” based on traditionalist middle class, male values which emphasise technicism and demote the emotions (Casey & Apple, 1989; Jeffrey & Woods, 2006). The authors highlight the “market-oriented, managerialist, technical-rationalist discourse” forced on the naturally holistic profession of teaching (Aspand & Brown, 1993; Hatcher, 1994) which rapidly developed after the Education Reform Act of 1988. In other words, the reduction of teachers’ diverse roles within education to mere technical competency and mechanical adherence to the external standards imposed, makes a mockery of their professional training but at the same time smothers dissent by creating a corporate culture which rewards those who can “hack it”. Many of the teaching staff interviewed for the study were devastated by the “clinical approach of the Ofsted inspectors” (Jeffrey & Woods, 2006) with one teacher commenting: “I don’t know who I’m going to be at the end of this because I’ve had to come to terms with a lot of my failings in areas which I thought I was jogging along nicely.” Indeed, it is interesting to note the frequency with which the pronoun “I” appears in teachers’ accounts reported here, a trend which I observed, too, when working in mainstream schools. Staffrooms up and down the country echo with it: “where do we stand?” they want to know. Arguably, this strategic “assault on teachers’ sense of professionalism” (Jeffrey & Woods, 2006) has the effect of destabilising teachers’ initial commitment to investing in young people, and turns their focus inwards, to self-analysis and an individualist drive for self-improvement. It pollutes the purpose of the profession.
“The reduction of teachers’ diverse roles…makes a mockery of their professional training but at the same time smothers dissent by creating a corporate culture which rewards those who can ‘hack it’.”
Jeffrey and Woods’ study is far from an isolated example, though. Ofsted, the standards and accountability juggernaut established at the peak of toxic 90s audit culture, has expanded rapidly over the past 20 years and now sits like a Black Hole at the centre of the education system, around which the debris of a former profession are pulled tight, providing the illusion of organisation. Beneath the surface, many schools and individual teachers are simply ricocheting from one disastrous policy to the next. The students themselves barely feature in this survival game. In Ofsted’s “School Inspection Update” published at the end of last year, it is nothing short of alarming to read that “some leaders have not properly understood the methodology at the start of the process, but have done so by the end.” (Ofsted, 2019) Equally confusing and redundant, is the report’s vague justification for “deep dives” which, in conjunction with “extensive curriculum training”, is supposed to produce more meaningful outcomes for schools. This constant shape-shifting on the part of Ofsted, coupled with their misguided impression that “curriculum training” could prepare inspectors for building an informed picture of the broad range of school types and contexts that exist, especially within the field of alternative education, renders the whole process more akin to a game of cat and mouse than a serious pedagogical enquiry. It is, as Wynstones Steiner School in Gloucestershire learnt the hard way, a game you must endeavour to play, or you lose. The school was closed at the start of this year due to “widespread failures” and the investigation remains ongoing, not least because Ofsted have trespassed here into unfamiliar territory; something two years of “curriculum training” couldn’t prepare them for. Steiner Schools, rather like the many apprenticeship schemes in operation which have been recently slammed by Ofsted, present the watchdog with a new problem; they aren’t interested in their arbitrary standards, and they won’t play the game. Far from recoiling in stung self-scrutiny to emerge a week later with a new coat of paint and a clammy handshake, Steiner Schools stand their ground and simply say: “no, you’re wrong.” It is admirable, but the fact remains that Ofsted has the power to play the puppeteer and, when deviance occurs, cut the strings. The main losers are, of course, the children every time.
Because school isn’t really about children any more. Instead, students form the pseudo-ethical basis for decision-making whilst the internal reality of the school system is that it has been driven in a direction of hard-line corporate values. On my first day as an NQT, a member of staff showed me around with the words: “welcome to the sausage factory – raw shit in, processed shit out.” I laughed nervously, but quickly learnt there was more than a bit of truth in it. The whole process of teaching and learning in schools represents a great charade which Paul Lockhart brilliantly summarises in his ‘nightmare vision’ of a society where music education had become mandatory. “I’ll have to get a music tutor,” Lockhart scoffs, in imitation of parents’ unwavering cooperation with a system built on sand. “He simply won’t apply himself to his music homework. He says it’s boring. He just sits there, staring out the window, humming tunes to himself and making up silly songs” (Lockhart, 2002). Such observations of the house-of-cards nature of public schooling are not new to anyone whose focus is actually on the children, not just their own career path. It might interest you to know, for example, that it is common among home educating families for children to learn to read one day, simply by picking up a book and figuring it out. But such stuff is refuted by the school system, in spite of many individual teachers knowing it is so; the phonics methodology is drilled deep and it is inconceivable to imagine simply allowing children access to books and the freedom to pick it up in their own time. Reading is just an isolated example, though. When faced with the maze of spreadsheet data to input by October half term for, at secondary level, potentially up to 200 students that you met for the first time last month, it is not uncommon for new staff to be advised – off the record – to simply “bump it all up” one sub-level. Both colleagues recognise this as a vacant, self-justifying eco-system, but who’s going to call it out? Nobody who knows what’s good for them. Just as the most soulful children are often those who end up labelled as ADHD and, not infrequently, medicated in order to “cope” with school, so the education system loses every year some of its best teachers; people who’d rather bake cakes or design t-shirts than dance to this tune. Increasingly, therefore, schools are hostage to career-driven, morally bankrupt leadership. Within this climate, school culture is politically charged and the perception of individual teachers rests as heavily on the suitability of personal ideology, as actual practice in the classroom. Did I mention the children at any point here? No. They are the products that the industry turns out, not the individuals whose lives should be placed at the centre.
“Just as the most soulful children are often those who end up labelled as ADHD and, not infrequently, medicated in order to ‘cope’ with school, so the education system loses every year some of its best teachers; people who’d rather bake cakes or design t-shirts than dance to this tune.”
State schooling was introduced around 150 years ago, during the death throes of the industrial revolution. Its purpose was clear: to liberate parents for work, to create a capable (but not too capable) future workforce, and thus to keep the wheels of capitalism well-oiled. Not much has changed, of course. In fact, these days it’s rather worse. Over a century ago, in 1912, Edmond Holmes published a damning report on his research into state schooling titled What Is and What Might Be and – quite incredibly – his findings mirror our present-day criticisms of the education system almost exactly. In Part One of the book (The Path of Mechanical Obedience), Homes notes “the prevalent tendency to pay undue regard to outward and visible ‘results’ and to neglect what is inward and vital” and argues against the rigid format of school which, neglecting the fundamental bodily requirements of the “growing organism”, insists on “lay[ing] thin veneers of information on the surface of the mind.” (Holmes, 1911) But these findings were prior to the real manufacturing of childhood, which came later in the 20th century and was characterised by longer school days, ever-increasing homework, the inflexible framework of the National Curriculum, reduced playtimes and sport, and huge investment in the private pockets of Exam Boards whose business is to keep everyone’s nose to the grindstone, purchasing the latest revision booklets and grappling with the most recent shifts in assessment grids. It’s worth pointing out that this has never been a fair system, though, for staff or students. The argument that children are sent to school against their will and made to endure all their formative years under the subjugation of strangers to whom they must appeal if they want to move or even urinate is blatantly true, but what about the teachers themselves? Public schooling initially shaped itself around a traditional patriarchal structure, with largely female assistants or class teachers under the direction of male management. This created an imbalance. Women working in schools weren’t even allowed to vote for almost the first 60 years of state education, let alone voice an opinion on national pedagogy. Which brings us to today. According to BESA statistics for 2019, 69.5% of teachers are female, although this rises at primary level to 82.4% and yet, in 2018, TES reported only 39% of secondary school Heads as female, in a report entitled “Why are there disproportionately few female school leaders and why are they paid less than their male colleagues?” With very few exceptions prior to the mid-1900s, the role of Education Secretary has largely been held by middle-aged white males; women are significantly under-represented and, notably, there isn’t a single black, brown, or Asian face on the list. No doubt the government are now scrabbling like lab rats to rectify that one, but the point is that the balance is already tipped. When power remains concentrated in the realm of white patriarchal discourse, it is too easy to write off critics as hysterical women and “outsiders”; privately, within the closed doors of decision-making, if not publicly.
It doesn’t have to be like this. In successful post-industrial models of education, such as Finland, there is a flatter management structure, with the higher value placed on individual teachers reflected through their increased salary (equivalent to a doctor’s income) and more democratic leadership of schools. It seems a shame that we can’t move towards such a progressive system ourselves; one which, notably, involves no formal testing or grading of students whatsoever, and yet has performed at the top of PISA’s international standards for a number of years. It’s about being aware of different world views; something which, on our small island, we seem woefully unable to do. Still, radically different approaches to educating young people do exist. If we imagine the history of mankind to be a clock, from our first ape-like ancestors though to present day, we have spent almost the entire first day – 7 million years of hominin evolution – living as hunter gatherers with our children raised in small, mixed-age groups, learning the skills necessary for survival from the now lost art of observation and personal exploration. That’s nearly 24 hours on our human evolutionary clock, of which the last 10,000 years of civilisation, rapid population growth, and urbanisation, can be measured as occurring at just a minute or two before midnight. Placed within this context, we might say that the last 150 years of the state school experiment reflects barely a millisecond on the human evolutionary clock and yet, due perhaps to our intense primate instinct to cooperate, we show blind obedience to the system; an industrial solution to an economic problem. So what if our children are stressed, medicated, depressed, and disinherited of any dignity in the acquisition of qualifications that they just spend their childhood sat at a desk for? It’s the way things are, in this moment in time, and we lack the vision to see beyond that. Only, it’s not the way things are everywhere. As Carol Black notes: “A Gikuyu mother in Kenya knows that you wait to give a child a task until you see that she is ready for it…[and] a Baiga father in the forests of India knows that if a child tries something and then backs away, you leave him alone, because he will be back to try again later.” (Black 2016) Indeed, the Aboriginal Australians of Tasmania presumably had their own cultural wisdom which had allowed their population to remain stable and successful on their small island, until British colonists wiped out their population in a violent and under-reported genocide in the early part of of the 1800s. It would serve us well to be more humble about our “great British education system” and the relentless “progress” that we appear so naively proud of; progress which has caused enormous suffering around the world and, most recently, to our own children.
“It would serve us well to be more humble about our ‘great British education system’ and the relentless ‘progress’ that we appear so naively proud of; progress which has caused enormous suffering around the world and, most recently, to our own children.”
In the New World, the cultural imagination of the US in particular has, in its very short history, always lagged at least a century behind more time-tested civilisations. And so it is here, in arguably the most corporate-driven, assessment-focused system of education in existence, that we can best observe the rampant nonsense of the mass schooling model and its devastating effect on our children. In the first decade of the noughties, a reported 3.5 million American schoolchildren were taking medication for ADHD, a statistic so incoherent with the relatively rare genuine cases of Attention Deficit Hyperactivity Disorder that we might safely rename this method “drugging our children so that they can take the boredom and disconnection of schooling.” Yet 1 in 4 Americans don’t know that the earth revolves around the sun. (Black, 2016) Let’s not laugh this off. It’s about more than the fact that, as Plato stated, “knowledge which is acquired under compulsion has no hold on the mind.” For all the toxic pseudo-science that underpins the K-12 approach, the US remains a poor contender on the international stage, lagging way behind Trump’s nemesis China on the PISA ranking system; a nation which dominates across the board, presumably because fear turns out to be a better motivator for rote-learning than disappointment. Go figure. But where do we stand in all this? Teachers are – for now – back in classrooms and too overloaded with the busywork generated by “recovery teaching” to bother much with wound-licking. Meanwhile, a generation of youngsters step tentatively forward with results which, when obtained in this way, can’t feel like much cause for celebration. Importantly, researchers at the University of Exeter are undertaking research into the experience of the pandemic for home educating families, including the gross injustice done by ignoring this group’s presence in August. But they have a steep hill to climb. The exam fiasco of 2020 isn’t just about stumbling through the socio-political minefield of COVID-19; it’s a reminder of the ingrained arrogance of our highly centralised, top-down education system which robs young people of their true potential in a variety of ways and, reliably, makes a laughing stock of staff – mostly women – working flat-out on the frontline. The cynic in me might even say that a clusterfuck of this scale is no accident; that, in fact, by uniting us in chaos, we are all kept firmly at bay.
Carol Black, A Thousand Rivers, www.carolblack.org, 2016
Edmond Holmes, What is and What Might Be, Constable & Co. Ltd, 1911
Ivan Ilich, Deschooling Society, Harper & Row Mass Paperback, 1970
Bob Jeffrey and Peter Woods, Feeling Deprofessionalised: The social construction of emotions during an Ofsted inspection, Cambridge Journal of Education, 6th July 2006
Paul Lockhart, A Mathematician’s Lament, MAA Online, March 2008
Valentine Mulholland, Why are there disproportionately few female school leaders and why are they paid less than their male colleagues?, TES, March 2018
Ofsted, School Inspection Update, Issue 21, November 2019