I don’t really get BETT. Every time I go there, I feel like I just am missing out on a secret that everyone else knows about. I like BettFutures, the little corner of hope that I find myself in, speaking on a panel on the subject of ‘Teacherpreneurs’. I’m not much of a tech pioneer, but it’s come to my attention that there is something entrepreneurial about being involved in the leadership of a free school, particularly one that has a traditional curriculum but also embraces innovation. In this small hopeful, grass-covered corner of BETT – it is that story that I tell. I’m always surprised at the reaction, the shock at realising that so many teachers and leaders do not have this freedom that I speak of – the freedom to do what they believe is best for their pupils. I have to hang onto the idea that there are schools and individual teachers that are able or are brave enough to do this – I’ve met some of them, and I have to believe that there are many more. Yet the shock, the disbelief, the joy that I get in the reactions of those I tell about my school makes me think otherwise.
As does wandering into the BETT ‘megashow’, where I see endless sets of stalls about whiteboard projectors, about data systems and about technological resources that will help teachers ‘close the gap’. I see assessment tools designed around GCSE specifications, I see reading programmes based around the idea that we don’t like reading, I see resources that talk of differentiating so that you can create challenge for some and not for others. Maybe I’m not looking right, but what I see saddens me: is this what we in education have created? Maybe I’m overly swept up in the dystopian stories I’m currently teaching, but this seems to be technology for tracking, limiting and controlling.
I listened to Nicky Morgan, who delivered her speech with the enthusiasm of a cyborg. When she spoke about her excitement about technology, her tone made me wonder momentarily whether she was being ironic. What came across in her speech, in the vast corporate stalls that sucked away at my soul and in the hopeful faces of the BettFuture arenas, was the danger of what a lack of passion, imagination and freedom can do to our schools.
Schools which continue to be slaves to the specifications; to look for easy fixes in making lessons work for all the diverse set of pupils we teach; to obsess over the tracking and monitoring of data (which would not be such a problem, if it wasn’t that so much of it continues to be meaningless – based on assessment systems which no longer exist or have no formative impact on pupils), and to try to dumb down content are not the schools our children deserve.
It’s easy to level the blame at the technology – but that’s just a bad workman blaming their tools. It’s also easy to level the blame at the politicians, and indeed they do have some part to play, mostly in how they can enable schools to feel free. I was heartened to see that Jeremy Corbyn visited Highbury Grove School last week and we were honoured that Rushanara Ali (Labour MP for Bethnal Green) came to our school to discuss the vote on Syria with our pupils. It makes me hopeful that Labour can have the passion and imagination to back the best education.
Yet ultimately it is about the responsibility that school leaders and teachers have to fight for what they believe is right for their pupils. It is not acceptable to be swayed by the mindless call of a device which will help you ‘close the gap’ to reach ‘high expectations’ and achieve the ‘excellent GCSE results’ which will make you an ‘outstanding’ school. We all have to be braver than that, we all have to be more intelligent than that. We all have to be a grass-covered, corner of hope.