Here’s two things I believe:
1) Schools should teach that Conservatism, particularly in its post-1970s New Right manifestation, is an appalling sociopathic con-trick designed to enrich a few at the expense of the many.
2) Every child in school should play Rugby League, because it builds character, is a lot of fun, and might eventually provide us with enough of a player base to beat the bloody Australians.
My economics teacher (God bless you, Mr Lingard) taught me the first principle, and I played lots of rugby league at school, which explains the second. Then I got loads of O-levels and A-levels, and I went to Oxford! This was despite going to the sort of school where my nickname was “Gaylord” because I occasionally completed my homework, some kids burned down the science block (not accidentally), two-thirds of the students weren’t even entered for O-Levels, more girls had babies at 18 than went to university, and my form group had three lads in it who missed days not through truanting – well, that as well – but because they had spells in corrective institutions.
So, I demand that every school, everywhere, immediately implements these two policies.
No, you say? But this is what I believe! This is what I want! It worked for me, damnit!
Still no, you say? But look at my school! It was hard. I had to do it tough (cue rap music, scenes of urban decay, silhouettes of sad-looking children), and so I’m an expert in such things. You namby-pamby liberal elite, with your admiration for conservative ideologues and your history of playing 15-a-side posh-boys’ rugby, can’t possibly understand what the kidz need. Shut up. Everyone do what I say now.
How dare you say “No” again! Look at me: I’m PASSIONATE. I’m SHOUTING my passion. I CARE. More than you. More than any of you. I have seen the LIGHT, and only MY WAY works. If you don’t adopt it, you are FAILING the children. I’m STILL SHOUTING. About my PASSION. RARRRRR!
Why do you still oppose what is obviously the right way? It must be because you are in a sect. Yes, that’s it! You’re a sect. You take your radical elitist lefty-liberalism and use it to harm children. You’re part of a secret society dedicated to deliberately preventing children from achieving their potential. You… you… you….”PROG”.
Now, the above is, of course, silly. Only a fool assumes from their own personal experience that everyone else would turn out identically if only they had the same circumstances. Indeed, the root cause of a very large proportion of terrible education policies is the very human, but very blinkered, inability of even highly-educated, highly-placed people to appreciate that their experience, their values, their priorities, are not universal. People are not uniform. This causes great distress to some, who would prefer it if we were all uniform (do I need to mention the words Brexit and Trump here, or is that too obvious?), while it’s a cause for celebration for others, who welcome the wonderful diversity, unpredictability and, yes, occasional stupidity, of humanity.
I’m very much on the liberal end of the spectrum. I’m comfortable with difference. I’m tolerant of behaviours I don’t like, rather than just indifferent to behaviours I don’t care about (so many people confuse tolerance with indifference, but that’s another blog). I do not seek to impose my preferences on others, and long-suffering readers of this blog will note that I have never once blogged that “this worked for me, so everyone else should do it”. I accept the need for compromise. I am, in other words, appalled by the authoritarian movements currently in vogue which seek to impose their worldview on all of us. And education policy is not immune to this upsurge of intolerant authoritarianism. It is a movement I believe we have to meet head on and fight, in our country, in our communities, and in our schools. This one’s about our schools.
I am different from other people, from my neighbours, from you. As a parent, as a teacher, and as a child.
As a parent, my values are not necessarily the same as your values. For example, I know some parents (or those who claim to speak for parents) argue that top of their list of priorities from a school is exam results. Perhaps they believe – erroneously in my view – that schools determine exam results, rather than being a relatively minor influence. But that’s a different point. Their claim is that everything which happens in a school is justified by exam results. If that means a draconian approach to the clothes the students wear, the size of their rulers, or the way they walk the corridors, then so be it.
I would rather my children were not taught mindless obedience at school. I want them to understand the difference between the necessary surrender of one’s agency for the benefit of others (not shouting in class to disturb others’ learning), and the pointless control over issues which have no impact on others (how you walk between lessons is nobody’s business but your own as long as you’re not late and you don’t kick anyone on the way). I want them to question authority, not blindly obey it. I am appalled by collective chanting of slogans, which I associate with horrible dictatorships. If I had to choose between a child who had a happy time at school and made friends, and one who did not, but got a higher grade (yes, I know it needn’t be a choice, but my children would not be happy under the sort of control-freakery practised in some extreme cases), I would, without reservation, choose happiness and friends.
In short, if a sociologist asked me their classic sorting question of whether I would prefer my child, at the end of schooling, to be considerate/curious/self-reliant or respectful/obedient/well-mannered, I’d fall in the first camp without a second thought. I’m not alone. I don’t care much if someone considers these to be liberal values, or middle-class values, or even “elite” values (and has anyone else noted the weirdness of the same people demanding that the only purpose of school is to provide the same exam grades and knowledge as the “elite”, simultaneously sneering at “elite” values? No? Just me, then). They’re my values. They’re my family’s values. They are, overwhelmingly, my friends’ values. They may not be your values, but you need to respect my right to hold them.
Yet respecting difference doesn’t come naturally to authoritarians, with their cast-iron certainties and self-righteousness. I read something only last night where someone wrote that all children would benefit from much harsher discipline of the sort promoted by authoritarians. That sort of statement sends a chill through my bones. Maybe she was talking about her own kids because she thinks she’s failed as a parent and they’re unruly and badly behaved. I doubt it. She was talking about my kids. And yours. She wants to impose her idea of unquestioning obedience on our children, starting from the premise that they are inadequate without it. It was the voice of resurgent authoritarianism, and it frightens me. It should frighten all of us.
I feel nothing but contempt for the sort of school or teacher who say “my way or the highway” to their local community, whether that be over behaviour policies, uniform, or academic achievement (so, yes, I hate grammar schools). You are there to serve your community. Not a part of the community you happen to like and which agrees with you. Not the easy bits of your community. Not just those who vote one way or the other. All of it. Your community is not there to serve you. That means that you must take account of, and do your best to reflect the fact that not all parents are obsessed with grades to the exclusion of all else. Not all parents want their children to be treated like prisoners in a North Korean re-education gulag. Not all parents are comfortable with an obsession over how their daughters, in particular, should dress. Not all parents are supportive or engaged. Not all parents can afford the expensive uniform and prescribed equipment. Schools who refuse to take account of such parents and their children are not serving their communities. They’re serving themselves.
In areas where there are numerous schools for parents to choose from, then this self-serving selection, whether explicit or implicit, can be sustained in the way that parasites can be sustained by larger organisms – living off the system, often at the expense of requiring other schools to take more difficult cases. It’s unpleasant, but few parasites kill their hosts. But in areas where there is little or no effective choice, because the local school is the local school, then adopting extremist positions is a denial of the rights of parents to an education which isn’t either abhorrent to their values or inappropriate for their child.
If my local school – the only one in my town – announced it was emulating Summerhill, abolishing timetables, lessons, discipline of any kind, then I would be appalled, because I don’t want that extreme environment for my children. So would the same people who currently act as cheerleaders for the draconian authoritarianism which is on the rise in our schools. Yet if that same local school adopted total miserabilist control-freakery, my rights as a parent would be equally denied, while those same authoritarians would simply sneer contemptuously at the denial of my right, and my children’s right, to a local state school which does not adopt extremist positions.
A state education system has to cater for all parents, and their different values. It cannot simply say “these are the only values schools will respect (which happen to be mine)”.
As a teacher, my methods are not necessarily your methods. Over eleven years, I learned many things. I learned how to control classes. I learned how best to communicate the information I wished to communicate. I learned how to motivate children to want to be there, do that, achieve this. I also learned, and this was by far the clearest lesson, that there was no “right” way. At the very heart of my professionalism was the understanding that children are not uniform, and they did not all respond in the same way to the same approaches.
Obviously, class teaching places limits on just how individual one’s approach can be – there are only so many minutes available per child. But it seems to me to be crashingly obvious that one doesn’t teach a low attaining Year 7 class in the same way one would teach a high attaining Y13 class. Moreover, when teaching a particularly dry topic, I’d do it differently than when I was teaching a topic I knew students would find intrinsically interesting. I learned to read the moods of students and classes so that I could vary my approach to best achieve my ends. To me, that is why teaching is a profession. There is judgement involved. It is a job in which humanity, in all its infuriatingly adolescent variety, is absolutely central.
I also learned that I was part of that human mix just as much as the children were. I have a character, as they do. I am more comfortable with some approaches than I am with others, as they were. There is no doubt that, for many of my students, what I did in that classroom, and the way I did it, worked for them. I’ve got the testimonials to prove it. But they would also talk to me warmly about other teachers, who took very different approaches, no less effectively. The school had some of the sort of strict, unsmiling teachers who scared the hell out of the kids. It had stereotypical hippy art teachers who were intensely relaxed about informality. There were classroom jokers, performers, didacticists and emoters. And most of us could, and did, do a bit of each as required. But different default styles definitely existed.
I was able to do strict and scary with some stroppy Year 9 classes very effectively. But I couldn’t have done it all the time – I don’t enjoy that approach at all, as it made me, and them, miserable. I could do group work for lessons where I could see the value, but I wasn’t as comfortable with that as I was with the teacher-at-the-front model, which accounted for far more of my time. I could do serious emoting on particular topics, but I much preferred sarcasm and humour. That was me. I became an effective teacher by learning what I did well and not so well, and adjusting accordingly. But I never once believed that what worked for me should automatically be applied by the teacher next door.
I absolutely understand why some teachers hate what they see as a requirement to use groupwork, if they are the sort of teachers who feel most comfortable with a more didactic style. As a wise old AHT said to me while I cried into my pint as an NQT – “You can only teach as yourself. You can’t teach as someone else”. What I do not understand, however, is how some of those same voices who demanded the freedom to teach as they wanted, are now quite vociferous in criticising those who teach differently. As Cromwell put it in exasperation:
“Is there not yet upon the spirits of men a strange itching? Nothing will satisfy them unless they can press their finger upon their brethren’s consciences, to pinch them there……! Had not they themselves laboured, but lately, under the weight of persecution? And was it fit for them to sit heavy upon others? Is it ingenuous to ask liberty, and not to give it? …. . What greater hypocrisy than for those who were oppressed … to become the greatest oppressors themselves, so soon as their yoke was removed?”
This is, on edutwitter, often characterised as a progressive – traditionalist split, as there is a loud group of self-identifying “traditionalists” who criticise what they see as “progressive” teachers and methods which, they argue, are to blame for low educational standards. As many have written, this is a false dichotomy, and much of the characterisation of “progressives” is the erection of a series of straw men. The argument is not really between “progressives” and “traditionalists” at all. The argument is between liberals and authoritarians. I taught in what might be described as a very “traditionalist” style, yet I am quite comfortable with the notion that there are other teachers and classes for whom a different style works well. I can only truly know what works for me, with my students, because of the central importance of those human relationships. I find the arrogance of those who claim that what works for them is thus the only method which should be used by all, to be breathtaking. And wrong.
A state education system has to cater for all teachers, and their different natures. It cannot simply say “these are the only methods which can be used (which happen to be mine)”.
As a child, I was bored stupid in most of my lessons. I was very able, easily mastered most concepts, and found hour-long silences and teacher lectures dreadfully dull. My most common misdemeanour at school wasn’t disrupting others, it was nodding off in lessons. I loathed assemblies and other forms of forced collective activity. I responded best to those teachers who were relaxed, informal, even eccentric. I hated the occasional class where the teacher had no control and let the students run riot, but I also hated those classes where the teacher demanded silence until every tick of the wall clock’s second-hand felt like an hour. Routine and consistency switched me off. Novelty, independent learning and humour motivated and inspired me.
My youngest child loves routine. She likes everything this week to be the way it was last week. She can get uncomfortable or even upset if things differ too much. She really struggles in a disruptive atmosphere. She’s a poster child for the “There Must Be Consistency” brigade!
State schools need to educate all children. Me and her. The very able, and the not very able. The individualists and the collectivists. The chaotic and the OCD. I had to learn to understand as a child that I needed to curb my preferences in order to allow for those who didn’t find it all as easy as I did. My daughter needs to learn that the world isn’t an ordered place, and part of growing up is coping with difference and the unexpected.
A state education system has to cater for all children, and their different natures. It cannot simply say “these are the only children I will educate (who happen to fit my ideal)”.
A state school with a private ethos should be a private school
A national education service cannot be designed around extreme positions. By its very nature, a system which has to educate all of our humanity, in all its different guises, with all its different values, has to fall back on a principle which is so quintessentially English that it has legal force: that of “reasonableness”. Schools which take extreme authoritarian approaches to controlling every aspect of a child’s school experience are, in my view, as unreasonable as schools such as the hippy chaos of Summerhill, as part of the state education system. Because of their extreme positions on issues of behaviour and control (albeit at different ends of the spectrum), they effectively exclude or oppress those members of the community who do not ascribe to their beliefs about how to treat children. There is a space for them in the private sector, where attendance is purely by parental choice, and not paid for by all taxpayers. But any school which claims to be a state school has a duty to educate all students, of all parents, and that means adopting an approach which is reasonable.
This “reasonableness” is, of course, the position of the overwhelming majority of schools nationally. To hear the tone of the ‘debate’, one might get the idea that wherever these shibboleths of the new authoritarians do not hold sway, chaos ensues. Indeed, one teacher from a particularly evangelical authoritarian school described pupils swearing at teachers in other schools to be “the norm”. This mad assertion denies the facts. Millions of students are educated happily and effectively every year by hundreds of thousands of teachers in tens of thousands of schools. Of course there are incidents in all schools from time to time. But it is simply untrue to say that such incidents are ‘the norm’. A self-serving lie. No different from a hippy Summerhill teacher claiming that it was “the norm” for teachers in all other schools to oppress their pupils or stifle their creativity.
No school has a policy of encouraging or allowing disruption during lessons. No school encourages bad behaviour. All schools seek to avoid such things, and overwhelmingly, through reasonable approaches which take account of the reality of the children of their communities, they succeed. Every day there are examples of the best and worst of humanity in those schools. But it is simply untrue to paint a picture of endemic failure in order to justify one’s own particular stance.
Nor is it honest to portray all non-draconian schools as a homogenous mass. I taught at three secondary schools, attended one, and my children have attended two. Each of those schools was different. They each took decisions about how to function, and the degree of control and direction exerted over the pupils, based around what their pupils needed. But all of them were comprehensives, and all sought to deal with children of widely different abilities, values-systems, and attitudes to school. All also sought to obtain support from, and buy-in from their parents. None of them did everything as I would like them to in my ideal world. But I accept that not everyone agrees with me, or thinks like me, or has my values and priorities, and I recognise that all were reasonable places filled with reasonable people doing their level best to achieve the best outcomes (not just academic) for the children in their care.
Reasonable is not a fixed model of what is “right”. It encompasses a wide range of policies, approaches and pedagogies which are often organically grown from the community of parents, students and staff which that school serves. At the core of this is flexibility, professionalism and moderation.
It is blinkered conceit bordering on cultishness to believe that there is only one rigid method which works best when transparently there are millions of examples of different methodologies “working” every single day. It is no different from me waving my drawerful of letters from grateful ex-students, and then demanding that everyone else employ sarcasm and informality in the classroom, because that’s what I did, and look at their results! It is also deeply insulting to those hundreds of thousands of teachers to portray them as uncaring, inferior or lazy simply because they choose to pursue the interests of the children under their charge in a different way which suits them better.
If you only wish to serve those who share your values, approaches and beliefs, then fine. Set up a private school, and invite fellow-believers to send their children there. If you’re right that this is what most want, you’ll be so overwhelmed with entrants you’ll soon expand and can offer free places to the less affluent parents who subscribe to your particular brand of extremism. This is, after all, what Summerhill’s hippies do. It’s also what extremist religious schools do. I dislike them, but I don’t have to send my children there, and I don’t pay for them. They are not, therefore, denying me and my children anything. But if you have a narrow extreme approach which allows for no differences, and makes it essentially impossible for those with different values to attend their local school, then bugger off out of the state system, because you’re taking our tax money to deny us and our children our rights to a reasonable and inclusive education service.
The split isn’t progressive/traditionalist, it’s liberal/authoritarian
Perhaps authoritarians naturally subscribe to black/white, wrong/right positions. Certainly their twitter feeds, newspaper columns, and favoured politicians all prefer that kind of misrepresentation of the messy complexity of real life. However, just as the alleged split between “prog” and “trad” is a nonsense for the vast majority of teachers, similarly there is no dichotomy in education between a successful, authoritarian, ordered minority and a failing, liberal, chaotic majority. The split appears to me to be more between an extreme authoritarian minority position which does not serve those parents and children with different values, and a reasonable majority position which seeks in a variety of different ways to serve all parents and children.
It is, perhaps, unsurprising that those who prefer a more authoritarian teaching style are less tolerant not only of student non-conformity, but of the non-conformity of adult colleagues and institutions. That is the nature of the beast. Any historian can provide chapter and verse on how the desire to control others and persecute difference is a constant urge in humanity. And this is a good time to be the sort of person who demands uniformity and seeks to “take back control” to an earlier, better [imaginary] time. I can well see why those who would “press their finger upon their brethren’s consciences, to pinch them there” might be feeling emboldened right now.
This is a difficult battle for liberals to fight. My instinctive liberal reaction to authoritarian schools, for example, is to shrug and say “well, if it works for the teachers who like that kind of thing, and those parents don’t mind their kids being treated like that, then fine”. And, to be honest, if they were in the private sector, as some sort of negative image of Summerhill, then that would be that. But the authoritarian movement is not in the private sector (indeed, many private schools would never treat their students the way some authoritarian extremists believe we should treat state school students) and quite clearly they are keen to impose their methods everywhere. On me and my colleagues as teachers. On me and my neighbours as parents. And, crucially, on my children as students.
Plenty of commentators have noted recently that there isn’t necessarily any longer a relationship between authoritarian and right, or between liberal and left, in this debate or any others. The dividing line has shifted in 2016. Everywhere in the anglo-saxon world, authoritarianism is on the rise. Everywhere, its characteristics are similar : proclaim certainty, assert “traditional” values, deride difference, dismiss opposition as “elite”, claim to represent “ordinary people”. Many in the new authoritarian movement will genuinely see themselves as of ‘the left’, and argue that what they do is for the benefit of the downtrodden, who have been sold down the river by the liberal values of the middle-class. Of course, every single illiberal demagogue, whether communist or fascist, has made the same claims over the last century. Every one of them justified their removal of people’s rights, and their forcible imposition of their own views, by claiming they were defending the little people, who wanted strong discipline, leadership and traditional values, against a decadent middle-class with alien liberal values. They all claimed that their ends justified their means. They all claimed they had been blessed with a particularly accurate, correct vision of what worked.
If those of us who subscribe to liberal tolerance have learned anything in 2016 it is surely this: we didn’t win the culture war, as we thought we had; liberalism is not safe; tolerance is not universally accepted; individual rights to equality are not respected by all. There are always more authoritarians, of left and right, itching to sit heavy upon us. To put us in boxes. To demand we unquestioningly accept their infallible leadership on the march to a brighter future.
That future is currently in our schools. These new authoritarians might seem to have the wind in their sails at the moment, but it’s time we stopped apologising for understanding the complexities of reality, stopped deferring to the zealots who claim to have all the answers, and started to fight for what we believe in.