All posts by Robert Pepper

Grammar Schools and the Veil of Ignorance | Robert Pepper

The Policy

From a political perspective, the Conservative idea to reinstate grammar schools is a truly great policy. In the popular imagination grammars represent a place of rigour, discipline, and academia, and the 11+ as a concept appeals to a pseudo-meritocratic impulse in  Conservative voters. In theory it is fair: in practice it favours them and their families.

When Labour politicians, leading union officials, and normal teachers rally in defence of the comprehensive ideal the Conservatives can wearily shake their heads, shrug their shoulders and say: we tried. They stopped us. Remember ‘the blob’ that Gove talked about? Here it is again. It is a policy that costs nothing to announce and makes those of us who devote our professional lives to improving the educational outcomes of young people look like the major barrier they face to success.

Meanwhile, schools are starved of funding and no one talks about it. Teaching continues to struggle to recruit sufficiently good applicants in sufficiently high numbers, and no one talks about it. There is only so much air-time that can be dedicated to education. Only one story is likely to break through into the mainstream. A fist-fight over grammars is a lot juicier than another public service complaining it lacks sufficient funds to serve the public properly.

 

The Reality

Whilst talking about reintroducing grammars is an excellent move, actually reintroducing them across the country is a terrible idea. Not because individual grammar schools are intrinsically bad. Whilst some are bastions of privilege and unhappy hot-houses, others can be magical places. Like John McDonnell, like Jeremy Corbyn, like Dianne Abbott, like 27% of Labour MPs elected in 2010,  I went to one. It changed my life. I found the high academic expectations the school had, that my teachers had, challenging and thrilling. My old grammar makes Michaela seem like a forest school. It was a stand-up-in-silence, sit-down-shut-up-and-get-your-books-out, 1950s-style institution. Emphasis on institution. I was the first person in my family to go to university and I went to Oxford. And that was normal for the school. I owe my grammar school very much indeed. To castigate it would be ungrateful, inaccurate and churlish.

But what was the local comprehensive in the town like? You know the answer to that. And that is the problem.

It is the non-attenders of grammar schools who will be impacted by this policy. Of course, it will affect the poorest children the most, even if Justine Greening violates the meritocratic purity of the 11+ in order to favour poorer families. But if we widen our scope out still further, we will see that three times more children will not attend grammars than attend them. As Angela Rayner has repeatedly pointed out, the re-introduction of grammar schools is also the re-introduction of secondary moderns.

 

 

When it comes to re-designing our schools, we must ask if what we are building is fair and just. This brings me to John Rawls’ ‘veil of ignorance’, or ‘original position’. Rawls states that we should create systems and institutions we would happily be part of regardless of our role or position within them. With that in mind, would you support the nationwide re-introduction of grammars if you knew your child would go to the secondary modern? Or would you rather that there was an outstanding comprehensive school in your town instead? If you had the money to launch new grammars, would you? Or would you ensure that existing schools were properly financed?

Of course, there are deficiencies and blind-spots in comprehensive schools and there is an unacceptable variability of school quality across the country that disproportionately affects poor people. Schools are running out of money and that is affecting provision in a profound way. The introduction of grammar schools does nothing to alleviate any of these problems.

 

Robert Pepper

@rbnpepper

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

I had expected the Conservatives fascination with grammar schools to have abated by now.

For the love of teaching | Ashley Pearce

Ashley Pearce (@ashleypearce84)  is a secondary school economics teacher in a comprehensive school just outside of Reading.  Last year he was elected as a councillor for the Labour party for an area in South Reading.  He is also a Reading FC fan and keen reader of educational literature.

I recently read an article on the TES website titled “The press is full of bad news stories about teaching-we desperately need to focus on the positives as well”. At first glance this seem a fanciful idea as more requests for tracking come in, you haven’t replied to that parent email, you have a pile of marking building up and you haven’t planned tomorrow’s lessons yet. It also made me think of the fairly well trodden known that all teachers do is moan. Now I’m sure this is true of most professions but most professions don’t get the press coverage that teaching does.

I am well aware of all of the negative stories around teaching in recent years: exam reform, pay cuts, pensions worsening, stress, class sizes…..there is a long list.

But there are so many positives to teaching that maybe sometimes we forget and the press certainly doesn’t report. We have the opportunity every day to influence and inspire a whole group of young people. It may not seem it sometimes but many of these young people really do look up to their teachers. I was a guest at a Primary schools Council recently and 5 of the 15 students present when asked who their role models were replied their teachers. From the kids own words, because they never give up, they explain things to us, they make things interesting and they’re passionate. Every day teachers get to choose (within the restraints of the curriculum) how to deliver knowledge and enthuse kids about subjects that are close to our hearts. This is a privilege most don’t have.

For us personally, we have the holidays. Twelve weeks off a year, treble the holidays of most. Yes we have to work in them sometimes and it is annoying flights are so expensive during them but still, most workers would happily swap for these. There is also our pay progression. Most professions do not all but guarantee a pay rise every year or every other year for the first ten years in a profession. Of course there are those schools that have used performance related pay to curtail wage rises but on the whole these are few. Despite this Government attempting to ruin our pensions (managing to damage them sadly), we still have a decent pension. Not “gold plated” as the media would like people to believe but we get a decent sum matched to what we put in, this isn’t the case for most. This is in part down to teaching unions being able to protect (at least in part) our rights and pensions, again, another right many jobs don’t have.

So why all the negativity around teaching? To me it seems most of this is psychological and leads to what is called “Negativity bias”. This is just a clever way of saying humans remember the bad more than the good. In teaching (as well as all walks of life), I’m sure we can all relate to this. You have had a 5 lesson day where you are really enthused, all of the kids have been engaged and all your lessons have hit the spot. Then last lesson, little Timmy just doesn’t want to know, he’s not interested in learning and what’s more, he’s going to make sure no one else in the room is going to learn either. He’s ruined your lesson. Which of those are you going to go home and tell your partner about? The 80% of the day that was positive or the 20% of the day that was not so much? As humans we are prone to focus on the negatives and tell others about them also. This is why negative political campaigns are more memorable than positive ones. Tory election strategist Lynton Crosby called it the “dead Cat on the table”. The premise being that to counter a story he didn’t want in the news, bring out another story that will counter it, the more negative the better.

The other reason for many of the negatives surrounding teaching include the admin, the paper work and bureaucracy. Much of this is down to another psychological phenomenon called “pluralistic ignorance”- a situation in which a majority of group members privately reject a norm, but incorrectly assume that most others accept it, and therefore go along with it. Sometimes there isn’t much any individual teacher can do, but if we all rejected it, what would happen? We all knew the Ebacc was a nonsense when introduced by Michael Gove, it’s included in stats so Governors have to care. Head teachers may have to push unsuitable students into those subjects to improve the stats, the kids don’t want to do these subjects and many times there are not sufficient teacher numbers to teach them. In short, we all know it is nonsense! But we all go along with it. Another facet to this is that the huge majority of teachers want to help, that’s why many went into teaching in the first place. Most teachers want to help and mostly want to be compliant, this good nature is often taken advantage of. Teachers don’t like saying no.

But for teachers to enjoy their job this is exactly what I think they need to do, they need to say no more. Saying no lowers the demand on your time, it enables you to make better decisions and focus on what is important. It enables you to keep a work life balance. To students, no I am not running an Easter revision session, revise yourself. No I am not replying to every email that doesn’t need it. No I am not going to look at my emails at home or lunch time. No I am not partaking in every school event. I know this sounds much easier than it actually is and I appreciate that. But for teachers to not burn out, keep their passion for the job and stay in the profession, this is exactly what is needed. In the long run this benefits the Government, parents, students and teachers themselves. Tired, burned out teachers leave the profession, saying no may just stop that.

 

 

In Defence of Universal Free School Meals | Tom Clements

Now, over the last eighteen months I have become used to the current leadership’s policies, or more commonly the lack of them, being criticised by people I respect in the Party. In fact, usually, I’m in agreement. But for universal free school meals, I find myself making an exception. This is a policy which is costed, thoughtful and will make a real difference to the lives of thousands of children.

 

(C) Daily Record

Firstly, let’s deal with the main criticism – that education funding is in crisis. School leaders and governors across the country are being forced to make impossible decisions every day. And I wouldn’t dispute that. I couldn’t dispute that. But these are two different arguments. Of course we should be challenging the government to increase school budgets. But we shouldn’t be using money raised from private schools just to plug gaps in state school funding. These monies should only be spent on improving state school standards, not just maintaining current provision. Otherwise, state schools will continue to be the poor relation to their private counterparts.

 

Then there is the argument that this is money that will be spent on the well off. Well, that’s just not the case. Many of the children currently living in poverty do not currently qualify for FSM. This allows the state to support these children whilst removing the stigma of FSM. More than that, it puts us clearly on the side of the ‘strivers’. Universal free school meals starts the long process of moving us towards being a Party that is seen to be on the side of the ‘squeezed middle’. Millions of parents would be better off. These are the very people that we failed to convince to vote for us in 2015.

 

There has also been the suggestion that the 20% increase in school fees would prevent parents from sending their children to private schools. We’re not seriously complaining about this are we? More parents having a stake in comprehensive education can only be a good thing. It would bring out the chattering classes and Daily Mail readers; forcing the issue of underfunding of state education into the political mainstream. Making comprehensive standards matter for more children can only mean that comprehensive standards will improve for more children.

 

Linked to this is the concern that a reduction in children going to private schools would reduce the tax receipts which would threaten the viability of universal free school meals. We’re not going to be scared by that are we? We’re the Party that fought for a minimum wage during a cacophony of claims that it would threaten a million jobs. And we shouldn’t forget the impact that a clear, understandable and measureable policy can have on our reputation. Our Party has a habit, certainly under Ed Miliband, of using the same money more than once. This was one of the reasons that we never recovered our economic credibility in the last Parliament. The universal free school meals policy has clear funding and would make children’s lives better – this is a win.

 

Then you have the criticism that universal free school meals aren’t bold enough. That it’s too modest to make a difference. To this, I can’t agree. We only have to look at the brilliant impact that family lunches have had at Dixons Trinity Academy and Michaela Free School have had on standards there. According to Luke Sparkes, principal at Dixons Trinity, family lunch offers an opportunity for students tosit around a dining table with an adult … eat[ing] from the best plates and dishes and drink[ing] from real glasses [where] conversation and manners is modelled by the adult [as] this is a time of day when our children can learn so much”. Universal free school meals would provide a great opportunity for schools to improve behaviour, manners, and much more whilst also serving nutritional, hot meals for all.

 

It’s hard not to get too excited after the dearth of initiatives of the past eighteen months but it’s clear that universal free school meals is a really solid policy. At our heart, we are a Party that stands up for the many, not the few and we should always stand up for the principle of universalism. We cannot allow our public services to become poor services for poor people. Universal free school meals are not the solution to all the problems facing the state education sector but it’s a start.

 

 

Tom Clements is a History and Politics teacher in Yorkshire.

@labourtomclem

 

Minding the Gaps | Mike Watson

Mike Watson on raising the educational attainment of boys at UK state schools

 

The House of Lords recently considered what has become a real and entrenched sociological issue in England’s schools: the fact that girls consistently out-perform boys in educational achievement. Boys are nearly twice as likely as girls to fall behind, and despite a dramatic improvement in overall results over the past decade or so, the gender gap has hardly changed for five-year-olds.

 

Research by Save the Children shows that since 2006, there has been a 20% improvement in overall attainment in state schools, and an 8% reduction in the poverty gap. Yet there has been a reduction of just 1% in the gender gap, in terms of educational attainment. In 2015, boys accounted for 51% of children who started primary school but 66% of those who were behind in their early language and communication. The pattern is similar at Key Stage 2 (age 11) and with GCSE results, and also found across all ethnic groupings.

 

There is no obvious reason for this disparity. But research from University of Bristol has shown how big an impact the gender gap in the Early Years Foundation Stage (up to age 5) has on boys’ primary school attainment. Two-thirds of the gap in reading at Key Stage 2 can be attributed to the fact that boys begin school with poorer language and attention skills than girls. Evidence meanwhile, from a wide range of other studies points clearly to high-quality early childhood education and care provision being the most powerful protection against the risk of falling behind.

 

This is especially the case with children from disadvantaged backgrounds. Ministers says they want to improve social mobility. I don’t doubt their good intentions in terms of apprenticeships but they are misguided about expanding grammar schools, for which there is no evidence to demonstrate these have a positive impact on such mobility. Instead, the government should relentlessly target resources at early years’ provision.

 

Since 2010, over 400 of the Sure Start centres across England established by the last Labour government have closed. In July 2015, the then childcare minister announced the launch of an open consultation on Children’s Centres for that autumn – something that never happened.

 

Ministers must grasp the need for investment in the best early education and childcare provision, particularly in the most deprived areas, led by graduates and supported by skilled staff at all levels. A well-qualified early years’ workforce is vital if young children are to have the support they need to thrive. There is also a need to increase the number of teachers and those with equivalent graduate qualifications. The difference in the quality of provision at nurseries between the most and least deprived areas is almost completely wiped out if a graduate is present.

 

We cannot wait for disadvantaged children – girls and boys alike – to get to school before they receive the support they need. By that time many will have already fallen behind, with negative consequences for their childhoods, life chances and success.

 

Much better to consider the positive benefits of improving boys’ language and communication skills early on in life – whether in terms of personal relations or how they might better interact with the world around them. As well of course, how it might help deal with the adult counter-point to this particular concern: the fact that despite the early attainment gap between boys and girls, it is the latter that continue to lose out once they enter the workplace.

 

Lord Mike Watson of Invergowrie is Shadow Education Minister in the House of Lords

Teach First Career Change | Joanne Crossley

I had always wanted to be a teacher. Many a happy childhood hour was passed creating registers, devising rules and putting on productions at my imaginary school (yes, I know). It was my Mum who stopped me. She was a deputy head at a local primary school and she felt that I could do something ‘better’. So for twenty years I worked as a Barrister in Leeds, specialising in family law. My work was varied, challenging and interesting but in later years something seemed to be missing: it didn’t always seem very worthwhile. Dealing with the financial arrangements of divorce was often frustrating and sometimes it even felt damaging to the families involved. I began to dream of being a teacher again.

 

My husband told me about Teach First as a colleague of his had recently left the Bar to join. I went to a presentation evening in Leeds and, six months later, had been accepted and was waiting to hear where I had been posted. In September 2016 I started as an English teacher at a school in special measures in Bradford.

I chose the Teach First route because I wanted to make a difference where it is most needed. Although fully aware of the effects of educational disadvantage, I was still shocked by the statistics. Children from the poorest families are only half as likely as others to get five A*-C grades at GCSE and of these children, nearly 50% achieve no GCSEs above a D grade. The odds against a child eligible for free school meals at a state secondary school being admitted to Oxbridge are 2000-1. For a privately educated child it’s 20-1. Teach First say that the link between income and attainment at school is stronger in the UK than almost anywhere else in the world.

Although these statistics are motivation enough, there are practical aspects that make Teach First an attractive ITT option, especially if you are a career changer.  You are paid a salary whilst you achieve your PGCE and QTS status and the leadership development aspect of the programme gives you the option of swift career progression, assuming you make it through the first year.

 

Critics are suspicious of the six week ‘Summer Institute’ training. Whilst it’s true that nothing can prepare you fully for being dropped full-time into the classroom in September, the support from Teach First amounts to far more than a six week training course. That’s partly what makes this route so demanding. In addition to getting to grips with classroom management, there are academic assignments, subject days, weekend conferences and half-termly leadership development workshops. Each participant is looked after by a dedicated team of mentors and tutors, some school based and some based at partner universities.

 

Teach First are quite clear that ‘nobody said changing lives was be easy’. It’s in big letters on their website. Despite this, I had not imagined it would be quite so difficult. Nor that it would be so challenging to change career mid-life. I had rather arrogantly assumed I would be instantly recognised as the saviour of teaching. I wasn’t. And for good reason.  To go right back to the beginning, and accept that you are just, well, rubbish, is a tall order. The ‘Growth Mindset’ display in my classroom (that I proudly took a whole day of the summer holidays to make) has provided more help to me than it ever has to any of my pupils.  Especially the bit that says: I can’t do it yet.

It seems ridiculous now but at the time I didn’t pay much attention to the ‘First’ part – just the ‘Teach’.  Being older than everyone else has its drawbacks – 12 hour working days, all night essay crises, two-for-one cocktails:  all so much harder to handle second time round. And I did not like student living, even though facilities have much improved since 1988.

 

Life at the Bar is very competitive and can be quite ruthless. One of the many things I love about teaching is the collaboration and openness amongst colleagues. If it weren’t for the support of my Teach First colleagues in school, and the @Team_English1 community on Twitter, I might not have stuck with the programme. Now that I’m starting to find my feet, I think that this is the best decision I’ve ever made. It’s too early to say whether my pupils feels the same.
I think my colleagues at the Bar think I have lost my mind and will soon be back in Chambers. My children tease me by pointing out that as they are growing older, I’m looking for other children for whom I can be a pushy Mum. Perhaps this is partly true: I want all children to have the same access to educational opportunity, not just those with wealthy or sharp-elbowed parents. But if I’m honest, the reason for the change is largely selfish.  Yes, there’s lots of marking, inexplicable data collection and seemingly endless multi-coloured dialogic feedback. But a tough day at work now involves reading poetry, or Y8 dystopian fiction, or planning Y7 creative writing club. And for that, I cannot thank Teach First enough.

 

@JoanneCrossley

From court room to classroom: was Barrister, now Teacher. Teach First Yorks and Humber 16 cohort.

Becoming a Teacher

There are approximately half a million teachers in the UK (full-time equivalent)  educating over 8 million students in around 25,000 schools. And yet we have a teacher shortage that has reached critical levels. The Education Select Committee recently published a report on the Recruitment and Retention of Teachers that sought to outline the situation more clearly in the hope of finding some solutions.

One of the issues identified by the report was the plurality of routes into the profession:

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

As the report makes clear, this diversity may be useful but it is also confusing. It also poses significant questions: are all these routes equally rigorous? Do these routes present a unified vision of the profession? Do we need a unified vision? Is it possible for Ofsted to quality assure the myriad of school direct courses? Should universities or schools take the lead? Is a truly equitable partnership between schools and universities possible? Perhaps most critically of all, we are compelled to ask: do we need these different routes?

 

This week I shall be uploading posts by different Labour Teachers explaining their routes into the classroom. These are teacher-recruitment success stories and plot a path from interest in the job to actually doing it. I hope they will help explain the strengths and weaknesses of the various paths into the profession.

 

 

Sharing Resources Online For Free

Teaching is a strange job. Much of it is solitary work: after-hours planning and late night marking. And yet, of course it is public. So very public. The act itself requires another person, and in our education system that usually means more than thirty of them. Our work is primarily self-directed. We have a curriculum to follow, and we must fit into the rhythm of school life and the assessment and reporting calendar, but we call the shots most of the time for most of our day. Combine this autonomy with high levels of personal accountability, a huge workload, and the rigorous treadmill of school life, and it is easy to forget that, actually, we are not alone. We are part of a wider body of colleagues: both in our school and throughout the country. And, with wonderful tools like twitter at our disposal, we have the potential to communicate with each other, help each other, and to influence classrooms we will never see.

 

#TeamEnglish

To illustrate this point, allow me to tell you a personal anecdote. I am in my first year at a new school, and have taken on a year 11 class studying a course I haven’t taught before. This is not an unusual situation (indeed it is the third time I’ve been in it) but this is the first time I’ve been able to borrow the work of other colleagues so extensively. I’m not sure how I found it, or when exactly I found it, but the hashtag #TeamEnglish has been a revelation. I could not quantify the amount of time it has saved me. Knowledge organisers, poetry anthologies, past papers, high quality schemes of learning: I’ve downloaded them all. I gratefully hit the ‘Print’ button, and watch as the work of a dedicated teacher, whom I don’t know and will not be able to adequately thank, is stapled together in neat little bundles.

With all the time this has saved me, I have been able to ruminate on the ethics of this transaction. Does it constitute simply a (wonderful) act of collegiate kindness? Is it an act of financial stupidity? Or is it something more: a meaningful step in re-imaging our professional obligations?

 

Richard Parsons

The simple truth is: people will pay for good resources. A brilliant article in the Telegraph from 2009 speaks of Richard Parsons, a man whose name may be oddly familiar to you. He was the fifth best-selling author of the past decade. Look at these mind-boggling statistics:

“Since 2000 he has sold a total of 9,363,795 books, amassing sales of £48,293,826. That may be dwarfed by Rowling’s sales of 27.5 million books, at a value of £215.8 million, but it ranks happily alongside Bill Bryson’s sales of 5.9 million, with a value of £50 million. Indeed he has outsold Jamie Oliver, who has only managed to shift a paltry 7 million of his cookbooks, and Ian Rankin and Patricia Cornwell, who sold 6.4 million and 6.1 million of their crime novels respectively.”

He is familiar because her is Mr CGP. Those corny, comic-book style revision guides are so widely used he had amassed sales of nearly £50m eight years ago. What he must have made by now is anyone’s guess. No wonder he is seen “sometimes wearing T-shirts emblazoned with ‘The Boss’ on the front.”

 

I don’t begrudge him his success. His books are affordable and useful. But some of the material I’ve downloaded for free using #TeamEnglish has been better. Surely the teachers, busy professionals, who produced these resources deserve a few quid? If they earn enough to go on holiday at the end of the year, wouldn’t that be great?

 

TES Paid Resources

In theory, that is what the TES shop should allow to happen. Teachers sell their handiwork at a nominal sum and are duly paid for their time and effort. Over the course of time, reliable purveyors of high quality resources will be identified by the market place and these diligent practitioners will be supplementing their income whilst simultaneously saving other teachers the task of producing resources. We all benefit.

And yet there is something… uncomfortable about this part of the TES website. I’m not alone in thinking this:

My own survey produced similar results:

(Incidentally, the ‘2% Yes – at a price’ was the result of an accidental button-pressing!)

In addition to boycotting the service, others expressed a disappointment that it even existed:

 

Contrasting this experience with my own use of #TeamEnglish, it is difficult not to share @MissBLilley’s disappointment.

 

Why Share?

If there is money to be had, why not cash in? Why share? It makes sense at this point to pass over to the heroes of the piece and allow them to explain their own motives:

 

A New Vision of Collegiality

Those teachers that choose to share their work online are operating within the noble traditions of the profession. As @Eng_Lysh puts it, ‘teaching is all about sharing and not just with the students.’

Informal collaboratives like this operate as CPD, improve the experience children get in the classroom, and connect us to each other. By helping to relieve the burden of excessive workload they also reinforce our professional kinship. We use other people’s materials and we are moved to share as well.

Whilst TES’ paid resources may prove to be a huge commercial success, I do hope that is not the case. I entirely empathise with any teacher who seeks to make a very modest return on hours of their own labour.  But there is something so brilliantly noble, so heartwarming, so exciting, and so empowering about #TeamEnglish that a few quid could never replace. It is a virtuous circle that helps us to see more clearly our professional obligations to each other. At a time of great upheaval and specimen change, it is right and proper that we band together and share the workload. It is better for all of us, and for young people, that we do this for free.

Not least because, even though it may feel like it at times, in this profession we are never really on our own.

 

 

 

Why Pedagogy Is Political

In my first blog as editor, I wrote about what unites Labour teachers. The purpose of education is rarely a truly controversial topic amongst teachers. Although we each place our emphasis differently, the key notes of knowledge transfer, social mobility, preparation for life (emotional and economic) recur.

Where educators disagree, quarrel, fall into rival camps and call for battle is pedagogy. An afternoon lurking in the shadows of edutwitter will reveal this in stark, truncated, passive aggressive snippets. Why is this the case? To quote Deng Xiaoping, surely it doesn’t matter whether a cat is white or black, as long as it catches mice: if we are all reasonably agreed on our preferred destination, why does the method of transport matter so much?

 

Schooling and the Left

The Left has an ambivalent relationship with schooling. Sir Ken Robinson’s Ted Talk ‘Do schools kill creativity?’ is emblematic of a type of Romantic criticism of modern education that finds traction with some of the liberal middle-classes. The central tenet is a core belief in a Rousseauian individuality: young people are perceived to be unique individuals who need shielding from the warping effects of society in general, and modern capitalism in particular.

In his lecture, Sir Ken charismatically explains that rather than being a symbolic victory in the liberation of the working classes, the development of free education for all was actually a crushing victory for capitalism against the vulnerable individual. Indeed, state education was created in the image of the industrial revolution and it exists only to serve its needs. Schools process our children in the same way East Lancashire mills handled cotton or Ford built cars. Young minds are arranged by ‘manufacture date’ (date of birth), moved from station to station in batches at the beck and call of bells, monitored, quality assured and finally, horrifically, graded.

Sir Ken’s vibrant and inspiring speech has been viewed over 40,000,000 times. This is a viral success that far outstrips what one could reasonably expect from a (didactic) talk about education paradigms from a man without a large public profile. Evidently, it caught the zeitgeist and spoke to people beyond the professional confines of education. But for those of us who do work in education, it compelled us to ask a series of inter-linked, uncomfortable and profound questions: are schools moral places? Do they do good things? Am I a just a stooge of capitalism?

 

Teacher as banker

Teaching is not a highly-paid graduate career, and nor, judging by recent statistics, is it a highly desirable one. But it is one that carries some residual social respect in the UK, although admittedly not approaching the near deification levels of esteem one might apparently expect in Finland or China. It is seen as a moral way to make a living. However bad the day was, or stressful, or unsuccessful, the weary teacher can be consoled that she is fighting the good fight.

However, a line of critical pedagogues, beginning with Paulo Freire, would contend that this is not the case. Freire’s famous book Pedagogy of the Oppressed’ (1968) is, a seminal work, but one best encountered through secondary literature. Perhaps it suffers from a clumsy translation, as reading its clunky and repetitive Marxist phrasings is like hacking through a semantic jungle. But, occasionally, Freire’s ideas burst forth and appear irrefutable in their clarity. I quote him at length discussing first the deleterious effects of didactic teaching, a key aspect of ‘traditional’ pedagogy:

Narration (with the teacher as narrator) leads the students to memorize mechanically the narrated account. Worse yet, it turns them into “containers,” into “receptacles” to be “filled” by the teachers. The more completely she fills the receptacles, the better a teacher she is. The more meekly the receptacles permit themselves to be filled, the better students they are.

Moving from this traditional method, Freire builds to a description of the type of learning it fosters:

Education thus becomes an act of depositing, in which the students are the depositories and the teacher is the depositor. Instead of communicating, the teacher issues communiques and makes deposits which the students patiently receive, memorize, and repeat. This is the “banking’ concept of education, in which the scope of action allowed to the students extends only as far as receiving, filing, and storing the deposits. They do, it is true, have the opportunity to become collectors or cataloguers of the things they store. But in the last analysis, it is the people themselves who are filed away through the lack of creativity, transformation, and knowledge in this (at best) misguided system. For apart from inquiry, apart from the praxis, individuals cannot be truly human. Knowledge emerges only through invention and re-invention, through the restless, impatient continuing, hopeful inquiry human beings pursue in the world, with the world, and with each other…

Naturally, Freire sees the role of teacher as crucial in upholding this debasing status quo. In a fabulous parenthetical aside, he damns the whole profession:

(for there are innumerable well-intentioned bank-clerk teachers who do not realize that they are serving only to dehumanize.)

The Hidden Curriculum

John Taylor Gatto, an American educator and author of the best-sellingDumbing Us Down: The Hidden Curriculum of Compulsory Schooling’ (1992), helped to popularise Freire’s notion that what was being taught in school wasn’t just what was on the curriculum. Gatto explains that the government, and the collected forces of capitalism, have created ‘compulsory’ state schools to indoctrinate the population. His essential point is similar to Robinson’s, but where Sir Ken emphasises how dance and drama are under-valued, Gatto believes the people of America and Europe are being manipulated to think like a bovine herd by capitalist pay-masters. With the frustrated zeal of a man who believes he has escaped from a cult, Gatto issues a blunt explanation of the moral value of teachers and schools:

“Although teachers do care and do work very, very hard, the institution is psychopathic-it has no conscience. It rings a bell and the young man in the middle of writing a poem must close his notebook and move to a different cell where he must memorize that humans and monkeys derive from a common ancestor.”

A recurring refrain in Gatto’s work provides us with yet another analogy:

“School is a twelve-year jail sentence where bad habits are the only curriculum truly learned.”

 

 

A Progressive Solution

Schools, then, are factories, banks, or jails: the holy trinity of evil to any Romantic. And the crucial thing that makes them this way is people like you and me: the teachers. And what is actually damaging the children is not just the cruel institution itself, but the way in which we teach. Traditional pedagogy denigrates, dominates and dehumanises the individual.

But all is not lost. Freire gives us hope that we can be part of the solution:

The raison d’etre of libertarian education, on the other hand, lies in its drive towards reconciliation. Education must begin with the solution of the teacher-student contradiction, by reconciling the poles of the contradiction so that both are simultaneously teachers and students.

We can’t destroy the institution of schooling, but we can subvert it by fundamentally altering the paradigm. We can be co-creators, and co-learners with our students. As Gatto put it:

The primary goal of real education is not to deliver facts but to guide students to the truths that will allow them to take responsibility for their lives.

‘Progressive’ education can be seen as an attempt to address some of the sterner criticisms of Robinson, Freire, Gatto et al., from within the education system. By changing the nature of the relationship between teacher and student, no child could claim to be dehumanised like a factory part, or treated like a soulless savings account. By focusing on creativity, engagement and choice, comparisons to jail would be rendered meaningless. Only in the Daily Mail do prisoners celebrate and enjoy their incarceration.

On the surface of it, there seems to be little to dislike here and not much at risk. The valuable institution of school is perpetuated, but modified to suit the politics of its practitioners. The worst excesses are curbed, and the rights of the individual protected.

 

Criticisms of Critical Pedagogues

However, such criticisms are hard to take. Traditional pedagogues grafting through life in their didactic way, believing they are helping to inform and inspire the next generation are entitled to mount a robust defence from this unanticipated attack by fellow teachers.

It is easy to trace the outlines of their enraged riposte. Whatever the failings of traditional pedagogy, progressive methods are not, by default, benign. Whilst it is surely the case that many teachers use progressive methods to great effect, it is also possible to criticise the pedagogy using the same tactics as those employed to critique traditional methods. The straw-man opposite of the banker-jailer teacher is that of the cheerleading-guide-on-the-side. A merry adult merely observing, but not overtly influencing, an ‘education’ that has collapsed into an unstructured, student-centred series of engaging but ultimately insubstantial activities. This type of education also encodes a hidden curriculum. An unfettered dedication to the self, obedience only to one’s own fleeting interests, and an absence of depth, rigour and context in learning. This is thin soil on which to develop a fertile understanding of the world, and likely to yield a crop of self-entitled, self-satisfied know-nothings. These evils are surely as deleterious and as destructive to the individual and to society as those identified by Freire, Robinson and Gatto.

Moving to the structural basis of Romantic progressive education, one can note briefly that there is much about Rousseau to treat with caution. In Emile, his treatise specifically addressing education for children, he states:

You are afraid to see him spending his early years doing nothing. What! is it nothing to be happy, nothing to run and jump all day?

The merits of this approach can be debated. The fact that he sent all his (five) children to Paris Foundling Hospital, and therefore very likely to their death, so that he would be free from supervising such jumping so that he could write about it is, sadly, indubitable. Ad hominem aside, Francis Fukuyama in The Origins of Political Order (2011), offers a substantial and compelling biological and anthropological challenge of Rousseau’s foundational belief in the ‘natural’ tendency towards ‘individuality’ in humans.

 

 

Tradition Restated

Although it enjoys seeing itself as a challenge to orthodoxy, in British state education a version of the progressive approach had been in the ascendancy for a generation. When I did my subject specific secondary PGCE at Cambridge almost a decade ago, learning styles, group work, engaging starter activities, post-it notes, reduced teacher talk-time, thinking hats, etc. were recommended. Certain schools (who rejected the title ‘school’ and did what they could to reject the logical necessity of lessons and timetables) were held up as examples of what we could help build.

The ascendancy ended when Gove and Gibb, acolytes of E D Hirsch, ushered in a knowledge-based curriculum. The teacher was now back to being sage on the stage, and the new school ideal looked more like a South Korean hagwon than a Rousseauian forest school.

The pendulum swings because it must: because neither progressive nor traditional, as emotive as the debate is, has the monopoly on truth.

Freire, Robinson and Gatto raise good questions, not all of which our current education system can answer. However, their objections are overblown. School is not, for most people, a loathsome adolescent jail or dehumanising factory. It is a good place, where mostly good things happen. If it is a workshop at all then it is the one where the meritocracy of our society is (imperfectly) formed. Most students recognise this, because ultimately so do most parents.

Where the criticisms are at their weakest is, crucially, where the debate is at its most febrile: the nature and purpose of the teacher. Progressive educators are rightly very aware of the impact a teacher has on a young person, in particular through the messages that are encoded in the ‘hidden curriculum’. But teachers are not bank clerks. Nor are they factory workers, or prison screws. They have the potential to transform lives and they have the potential to bore, frustrate and underwhelm. The school system is not a cunning invention of capitalism, but a mostly safe, mostly good place where adolescents can learn to be successful adults.

 

Little at Eton

Anyone seeking to establish that traditional pedagogic methods, regardless of context, have a damaging effect on the psyche of children must contend with the fact that they have not just been the thin instructional gruel of the oppressed industrial proletariat. They have also been the de facto method of instruction utilised in boarding schools and grammar schools throughout the country throughout the centuries. I’m sure it would come as some surprise to well-heeled parents paying premium fees that the ‘hidden curriculum’ is inculcating in their children a learned helplessness.

In Tony Little’s surprising book, An Intelligent Person’s Guide to Education (2015), the former Eton head’s holistic approach to education shines through. He sees academic studies as vital, but not to the exclusion of everything else. Lessons are a necessary aspect of an education, but not sufficient on their own. He writes warmly about house plays which explore complex human relationships, about the group dynamics of boarding life, about sport and how it develops character.

State schools are not in a position to offer comparable levels of extra-curricular activity. That is a terrible shame. But a sense of perspective in this highly-charged debate is welcome. I feel that, ironically, progressive criticisms of traditional teaching methods assume that the only form of interaction a child has with an adult, or a peer, is in the classroom. This then charges these interactions, significant though they undoubtedly are, with more importance than they actually have. Lessons are not the only thing in a young person’s life. Each young Emile is part of a family, and a wider community. He has friends. He plays: maybe on the Xbox, maybe with a basketball. Maybe both. He uses the internet. He interacts with the world. He will learn obedience and deference, and creativity and individuality outside of the classroom as well as in it. School is vital, but it isn’t, and shouldn’t be, the only place a young person learns. It isn’t the root of all social problems, nor is it the panacea.

 

The Politics in Pedagogy

My interest in the debate is more pragmatic than polemic. On the continuum I’m much more traditional than progressive, but really I’m just concerned with catching mice. The aims of education are much more important than the means. But I believe this because, as outlined above, I think the criticisms of Freire, Robinson, Gatto et al are mistaken and therefore their solutions unnecessary and replete with their own failings.

But I think having the debate is vital. Where we have this tension between traditional and progressive pedagogy, it is likely that neither side will attain ideological purity, and we will enjoy the best system: an alloy of the two.

 

Educating Ruby: What is education for? | Ashley Pearce

If you are able to spare a couple of hours in the next few weeks and raise your head above the endless forms, data entry, verbal feedback stamps and meetings, I’d recommend a book. I was sign-posted the book Educating Ruby (by Guy Claxton and Bill Lucy) by a Primary head but as an Economics teacher of mainly sixth formers, I can vouch that it spans the whole school spectrum in relevance.

 

The “star” of the book’s title is a fictional ex-student called Ruby. She left school a couple of years ago and bumps into one of her teachers in town and says “Thank you”. This confuses the teacher who remembers Ruby and recalls that Ruby didn’t achieve the fabled 5 A-C at GCSE. But Ruby goes on to say the school taught her an invaluable list of skills that have set her up for life, this got me thinking, what are we in education for? If school is to prepare young people for work then we are failing at it. Britain’s woeful productivity levels, stubbornly high NEET rates and disagreement from the CBI tell us that. If it is for kids to enjoy it and gain a thirst for learning then again, we are lacking. Too many students leave school disinterested in learning and the high levels of mental health problems we are seeing in our children show it is no easy ride. If it is to give teachers an easy ride, the huge increase in teacher workload and teachers leaving the profession in their droves say it’s not.

So what is it for? Why did we go into teaching? I believe (and Educating Ruby has helped me remember this) it was to inspire young people, to engage and enthuse them in the hope that they will want to go on and be as enthusiastic about something in the same way that I am about Economics. I don’t believe any of us were nervous at the teaching of our first lesson because we were worried we were not showing Ofsted 20mins of progress in a lesson. We wanted to inspire.

Teachers and schools are like political parties in that they are remembered in themes. I don’t remember much of the facts I learned at school despite how important it seemed at the time. I dare say that if I didn’t go on to become an Economics teacher, I may well have forgotten where the point of allocative efficiency is! And anyway, the pub quiz curriculum is made redundant thanks to Google. But I do remember being gripped by it, I remember the lessons being fun, I remember laughing, I remember wanting to find out more, I remember the teacher speaking to us like adults and being interested in our views. It helped that football was one of the major common interests but there was some discussion of politics and economics in there too.

I keep thinking of two phrases where education is concerned: pluralistic ignorance and collective conservatism. Pluralistic ignorance is where a majority of group members privately reject a norm, but incorrectly assume that most others accept it, and therefore go along with it. Collective conservatism is where groups stick to established patterns even as new needs arise. To me these two perfectly encapsulate where we are in education. The book ends with a call to arms for parents, teachers and communities. If we are not happy with the way education is for children today we have to take steps to change it, these all essentially stem from asking questions. This is something schools seem to beat out of kids from a young age and so adults are not very good at it. But question why things are done in a certain way, to teachers, to school leaders and to politicians.

On my classroom door I have Tony Benn’s 5 principles of education (what I believe to be “British values”):

  1. To discover and realise the genius in everyone.
  2. To learn about the people in the world with whom you have to live and their history and culture.
  3. To acquire the skills to do the work you want.
  4. To build up your confidence in yourself.
  5. To discover the danger of hate and the power of love.

Educating Ruby calls them the 7 C’s (I’ll let you look them up) but whatever they are called, they are a world away from what we are currently doing in schools.

 

Ashley Pearce  (@ashleypearce84) is a secondary school economics teacher in a comprehensive school just outside of Reading.  Last year he was elected as a councillor for the Labour party for an area in South Reading.  He is also a Reading FC fan and keen reader of educational literature.

Finding the Vision

“They said that I should lose my ideals and begin to believe in the methods of practical politicians. Now, I have not lost my ideals in the least; my faith in fundamentals is exactly what it always was. What I have lost is my old childlike faith in practical politics… I believe in Liberalism. But there was a rosy time of innocence when I believed in Liberals.”
G.K. Chesteron, Orthodoxy

 

 

Last year, Andrew Old announced he was stepping down as editor of Labour Teachers. He asked if any of the regular contributors wanted to take over: I assume I was the only one who replied in the affirmative. This must have been the case, because my reply was not especially enthusiastic: “if you can’t find anyone else, come back to me.” Come back to me he did, and this is the relaunch.

 

bsd_labour_2014siteV2_logo_1_dy1I was apprehensive about taking over the website, because I feel about Labour the way Chesterton felt about Liberalism. My commitment is to the core political ideals of the party’s foundation: the common good over private interests; fairness; social mobility. I believe in these ideals completely, and my career in teaching has daily demonstrated their veracity to me. I am much less intrigued by the party itself, and although I have been a member for over a decade now, I have only sporadically been ‘active’.

 

This lack of interest is compounded by my belief that much of the debate, in blogs and on twitter, that surrounds the Labour Party is not useful. It often refers to issues peripheral to the core aims of the party, or topics that are actively harmful to the successful implementation of them. The pro/anti Corbyn civil war is a distraction that does neither side any credit, and only serves to bolster the ambitions of rival parties. I did not, and do not, want to be a participant in this. To defer to Chesterton again:

 

“The net result of all our political suggestions, Collectivism, Tolstoyanism, Neo-Feudalism, Communism, Anarchy, Scientific Bureaucracy–the plain fruit of all of them is that the Monarchy and the House of Lords will remain. The net result of all the new religions will be that the Church of England will not (for heaven knows how long) be disestablished. It was Karl Marx, Nietzsche, Tolstoy, Cunninghame Grahame, Bernard Shaw and Auberon Herbert, who between them, with bowed gigantic backs, bore up the throne of the Archbishop of Canterbury… As long as the vision of heaven is always changing, the vision of earth will be exactly the same. No ideal will remain long enough to be realised, or even partly realised.”

Ibid.

 

So, why am I taking on the responsibilities as editor of Labour Teachers? Because, although I am weary of tiresome factionalism, I remain inspired by our core values. Whilst I am disinterested in party politics, I am passionate about education. And I believe that I am not alone. This website can play a crucial democratic role. It can link the lived experience of the thousands of Labour supporting educators with policy-makers and politicians within our party.

 

We are on the front line; we are at ‘the chalk-face’. We see clearly what the problems are and we feel the effects of education policy. We live with its consequences every day. And we should make our voices heard.

 

If you are a Labour supporting teacher, join us. Subscribe to the website. Write for us. Share the content. If you feel the party has been to quiet, too inexact, or just plain wrong in its education policy: get involved. It is in the finest democratic tradition of the Labour movement that you do so.

 

Robert Pepper      @rbnpepper