Academisation: Should We Be Afraid?

Piles of paperSurely the biggest problem with academisation is the quality of school management. It is because of poor school leadership that so many teachers face poor behaviour, ridiculous marking demands and horrendous surveillance which destroys their professional dignity. If I worked in a school like this, and I was told that the management were going to be given even more power to decide my working conditions and my contractual obligations, then I would be afraid. I would be very afraid. So I’m not surprised that strike action is being considered.

Academisation will deliver benefits for staff and, more importantly, for pupils, when it is coupled with improved school leadership. With good leadership and the right ideas, staff will be able to commit wholeheartedly and put their shoulders to the wheel together, because working hard isn’t the problem. The problem is working for too long, and working at pointless things.

It’s when we are required to work hard at futile activities for the benefit of paranoid managers that depression begins to sink in. When we know the point of what we are doing, we are prepared to put the effort in. Hard work for a worthwhile goal is rewarding; it’s one of the most rewarding things in life. But hours spent generating paperwork to satisfy an insatiable surveillance machine are soul destroying.

Hard work is rewarding, but there must be a limit. Working excessive hours is immoral, because it leaves no room for a life outside teaching, which is necessary for the sanity of staff. It also leaves no room for reading and building one’s own subject knowledge, which is so vital for keeping our cutting edge as practitioners.

It’s also unfair to demand excessive hours from teachers. It’s reasonable to compare an average level of working hours in a normal full time job. A forty hour week with twenty days of annual leave and public holidays means someone works 1856 hours a year. Divide that by 39 weeks of term and you get about 47.5 hours a week, or about 9.5 hours a day. While it may be reasonable to demand more intensive working during term time, filling the weekends, evenings and ‘holidays’ of teachers as well is unjust as well as being unsustainable.

The retention and recuitment crisis; poor academic results, especially in areas of social deprivation; excessive workload: all of these are the fault of poor school management. It’s no good their saying that ‘it’s what Ofsted wants’. Ofsted themselves have told them that they need to have the backbone simply to think about what is good for their pupils. When managers discover their spines and get some better ideas about things like feedback, then academisation will not be a threat. It will be a fantastic opportunity for school leaders to carry out the great ideas which are already being implemented in schools such as Michaela.

But how many teachers out there right now can really, honestly say, “Great, my headteacher is going to have even more power to decide what happens in my school! Now things are really going to improve!”

(Image from Wikimedia).

Professional Autonomy versus Curricular Coherence

Geoffrey_Chaucer_(17th_century)As with so many areas of education, one of the main arguments used by progressives with regard to teaching serious literature is . . . that there isn’t an argument. Apparently I am making a straw man when I claim that most teachers and schools avoid serious literature in favour of ‘relevant’ fluff.

I wouldn’t deny that there are many English teachers who love teaching Shakespeare, and primary school teachers who include great folk tales and legends in their teaching, but how many schools are there who have a coherent, chronological approach to literature which will build foundational knowledge in all pupils through the years? I’ve only come across two: my own (because I’m head of department, and I’m building the curriculum) and Michaela. The other five schools I’ve worked in over the last thirteen years have all had a disparate and disorganised approach to teaching literature, in which the cupboards are full of books of highly variable quality, and individual teachers pick and choose as they see fit. Many teachers hardly use the books at all, preferring lots of worksheets on their pet topics, which often have more of a whiff of media studies than literature about them.

A quick browse through school websites reveals the usual suspects: teen page turners such as Noughts and Crosses, studies of ‘spoken language’ including such eminent figures as Dizzie Rascal, and very little of anything earlier than the twentieth century other than Shakespeare. There is also a complete lack of any attempt to build up an understanding of literature chronologically. Units wander about between texts and eras, with no overall plan to build coherent knowledge.

Most English teachers associate ‘professional autonomy’ with being left alone to make up a curriculum as they see fit. Some consistency arrives at GCSE level, with the exam board syllabus, but by that time, a decade has been largely wasted doing bits of this and that. Even at GCSE, the diet has been very thin for many years. There is a bit of improvement now, but three texts and a few poems? Is that an education in literature?

During those ten years of meandering, the pupils could have built up a fantastic level of knowledge, a schema into which they could place any new information which comes their way. For example, at my school, because the pupils study Chaucer in year eight, they are well placed, by the time they reach year nine, to critique the idea that the Romantics were doing something novel when they introduced ordinary people and events into poetry. The Canterbury Tales is stuffed full of ordinary people and events! And because they have studied the bitterness of unrequited love in Wyatt’s ‘My Lute, Awake’, they know that intense emotional experience is not new to the Romantics either. Immersion in history is a wonderful antidote to the empty claims of the revolutionaries.

It’s possible to achieve curricular coherence within a department when all the staff accept that it is their duty to pass on to pupils their cultural inheritance. All must be convinced of the priceless value of traditional knowledge, and determined to deliver a curriculum which gives all pupils the opportunity to acquire this intellectual treasure from an early age. This is a very far cry from selecting Shakespeare from the supermarket shelf as one of many options for the ‘autonomous professional’.

I would love to be proved wrong. If there are lots of other English departments around the country building a core knowledge curriculum, please get in touch! I’d love to share ideas with you.

Real Life Issues, Relevance and Classic Literature

Puss in BootsReal life issues. Relevance to today’s young people. These are some of the top reasons given for reducing or ignoring traditional academic content in the curriculum, especially when it is older. What relevance do Shakespeare or Homer have for young people growing up on a rough council estate, the advocates of education-as-social-work ask rhetorically.

In reality, nothing could be more relevant to a life of struggle than great literature. It’s in great literature that we find the most difficult issues presented with the greatest power and insight. Unlocking this great inheritance for young people gives them ways of reflecting on life’s toughest challenges that they could not get from a thousand citizenship lessons or workshops on ‘teen issues’.

Human life is infinitely various, but great literature has lasted through the centuries because it engages powerfully with those challenges which we all face: death; loss; the passage of time; the enchantment and dangers of romantic attraction. Teenagers may think they are the first people in the universe to experience these things, but a thorough immersion in great literature will teach them that they are not alone. They are part of the human race, which has been grappling with these great questions for time immemorial.

The same is true for younger children. If we give them a diet of supposedly relevant fluff about children just like them, we are denying them the opportunity to engage with the great human questions that are dramatised in the legends and fairy tales that have been passed down through the centuries. There is struggle and death and the clash between good and evil in the great folk tales. Stories about heroes and man-eating ogres and giants actually engage more strongly with the fundamental questions of a child who is afraid of the dark, or nervous about entering an unfamiliar situation, than any number of anodyne stories of kids just like them who have not wanted to go to bed without their favourite teddy bear.

Children and young people have serious questions. Let’s take them seriously, and introduce them to the great stories that dramatise those serious questions, not fob them off with the candy floss churned out by the contemporary children’s fiction industry.

Teachers: A Few of My Favourite Men

There are always stories of teachers that we love to tell, whether they are cherished memories or nightmare tales. It’s one of the reasons I just couldn’t keep out of the teaching profession in the end, although I spent four years in exile, doing mostly dull and undemanding office work. Teachers are interesting people. They’re often peculiar people, and they generate lots of stories. This is a fairly self-indulgent ramble through a few of my favourites.

Mr Scott was a legendary history teacher at the local comprehensive where I was educated. He looked about seventy, with thick white hair, wore corduroy with leather elbow patches, and had a wonderful bushy moustache like General Melchett in ‘Blackadder Goes Forth’. His main interest was prehistory. Dinosaurs. It all got a bit dull, he said, once there were written records. He would write on the blackboard in a curly script that became increasingly illegible as he neared the edge. Sometimes he would write smaller and often curve downwards to avoid having to continue the sentence on another line. He told us stories about when he was in Africa in colonial times. He once explained that they used to play football with elephant dung, miming holding the turd in his hands and giving it a good kick with remarkable agility for his years. He was a wonderful splash of colour over our school existence. God rest him.

Another favourite was a PE teacher who will remain nameless. He specialised in long ranting lectures in the changing rooms, so long sometimes that we never reached the field. He usually aimed these lectures at the ‘wasters’ who were misbehaving and not working. We all knew who they were. Sometimes he would aim a diatribe publicly at one particular boy for ten or fifteen minutes at a time, and he was quite capable of reducing these boys to tears. I must admit to experiencing some satisfaction at seeing some of these individuals, who got away with making others’ lives miserable so much of the time, being publicly humiliated in this way.

Once I reached sixth form, I encountered an increasing number of teachers who used thoroughly traditional methods. Our economics teacher made use of a textbook and some whole class discussion, which he always chaired, but often he would just close his eyes and dictate notes. He really knew what he was talking about, and I had great respect for him.

And then there was the lovely Head of English. He was a softly spoken Cambridge graduate. I heard that some of the classes lower down the school took advantage of his gentle nature, but I was lucky enough to be taught by him in sixth form. He relaxed with us and often allowed digressions and debates to meander through the whole lesson. It was such a novel delight for me to have a male English teacher, and also one for whom I had great respect intellectually.

I didn’t intend this when I started, but it seems that all of these favourite memories are of men. Interesting. Doesn’t prove anything of course. Just anecdote.

‘Creative’ Methods and the Tyranny of Relativism

Oddly, many have accepted the idea that if a concept or piece of information is introduced in a fuzzy, indirect way, this preserves the free thought of the one receiving the concept or information. For example, if a teacher creates a role play activity around a particular historical era, rather than explicitly teaching the key facts and concepts, this is supposed to allow pupils to respond ‘creatively’ and generate their own understanding. Such creative responses are depicted as being the way in which young people will attain independence of mind.

But precisely the opposite is true. If information is made vague and ambiguous, using indirect methods, then pupils do not have the opportunity to question it, because it is not clearly and directly stated. A direct statement of fact invites critical thought, because it clearly presents itself as true. Critical debate requires the rational examination of competing and contradictory statements. Critical debate cannot take place when the principle of contradiction is repealed, and all that matters is personal response.

Thus a method which makes personal response central actually cripples the ability of pupils to reason. Reason requires our putting aside personal preference and holding before our mind competing propositions.

In the end, the human mind has an appetite for truth, and so some kind of truth will be absorbed through all the ambiguous activities imposed upon the young. It will be the ‘truth’ that it is their own opinion, regardless of any objective validity, which they should follow. This is the ‘truth’ which inoculates the young against any kind of serious education. They are usually very strongly convinced of it by the time they reach secondary school.

How Choice Corrupts the Curriculum

whats_wrong_with_the_world_1102Options sound like a good idea. Giving pupils choices is supposed to help them develop maturity, and to increase motivation, as they are thought to have more of a stake in something they have chosen. Thus in English schools, we usually allow thirteen and fourteen year olds to drop some subjects and select those which particularly appeal to them. There are even schools which allow, or actually encourage for some pupils, the abandonment of most academic subjects at this age.

I’ve always been sheltered from this business, as an English teacher, and yet I’ve often reflected on the impact it has on other subjects. There are many problems with offering the chance to choose too early.

The worst problem of all is that options turn teenagers into consumers, and teachers into salesmen. The role of consumer gives the pupil power over the teacher, subtly undermining their authority. It promotes the attitude that it is up to the teacher to entice pupils, not up to pupils to work hard and impress teachers.

Consumerism also tends to reduce academic rigour. If you have to persuade a certain number of pupils to take your subject beyond year nine, or even beyond year eight in some cases, then you will be tempted to make it more appealing to your customers. You will be tempted to reduce rigour and increase fun and games, in order to avoid putting them off with too much serious hard work. Thus options can lead to dumbing-down, especially at key stage three. The more marginal the subject, the more desperate the teachers can become to package it attractively to maintain their share of the market.

There are other temptations for teachers of optional subjects. I’ve often heard teachers talking about how a struggling pupil ‘won’t cope’ with their subject at GCSE. Should teachers of history or geography really be allowed to shed less able pupils? Shouldn’t everyone have the opportunity to learn about the history of the human race into which they were born, and the planet they inhabit? Maths and English teachers smile wryly when they hear comments like this. There’s no point in my saying anything about a pupil ‘not coping’. Up to sixteen, I have to find ways of enabling all to make progress.

In addition to the dangerous temptations it creates for salesmen and consumers in the subject marketplace, offering options could be seen as an abdication from curricular responsibility. Isn’t it the job of those in authority to decide what is really important for pupils to know? Shouldn’t schools be focusing on building a curriculum that will equip all of their pupils with broad knowledge, thus laying the foundations for a lifetime of active and informed thinking? If so, how much of the precious time available can be allowed to subjects which are ‘non essential’? Because if we make something an option, that is the message we are giving: that it doesn’t matter that much, that it is disposable.

This is an area where we see the powerful impact of differing educational philosophies. A traditional philosophy, that there is an important body of knowledge which it is the school’s responsibility to transmit to all pupils, logically leads to the minimising of choice. When a school is serious about producing cultivated and knowledgeable pupils, it will have very few options, because it will have the intellectual courage to say that history, for example, is too important for anyone to drop at thirteen. If, on the other hand, our educational philosophy emphasises self discovery and individual liberation, and views authoritative knowledge as tyrannical, we will maximise choice. Who are we to decide what young people should learn?

Accepting authority means taking on responsibility, and that requires courage. As G K Chesterton put it in 1910:

‘Now most modern freedom is at root fear. It is not so much that we are too bold to endure rules; it is rather that we are too timid to endure responsibilities. And Mr Shaw and such people are especially shrinking from that awful and ancestral responsibility to which our fathers committed us when they took the wild step of becoming men. I mean the responsibility of affirming the truth of our human tradition and handing it on with the voice of authority, an unshaken voice. That is the one eternal education; to be sure enough that something is true that you dare to tell it to a child.’ (What’s Wrong With the World)

Curious about WHAT? How Curriculum Content Is Forgotten

Tumbler_of_cola_with_iceA glance at a typical school website will reveal just how excited they are about everything. They want to promote curiosity, enthusiasm, engagement, creativity! It all sounds so wonderful! You will also be treated to a dizzying array of close-up photographs of pupils sliding across the screen. As they gaze at test tubes and kick footballs, their faces are so curious, enthusiastic, engaged and creative! It’s a veritable rollercoaster ride of feel good experiences!

This slick marketing works just like adverts for fizzy drinks. You look at rapidly shifting images of happy, beautiful people drinking the fizzy drinks, and you make an emotional connection.

But the school websites are often as empty of content as the fizzy drinks whose marketing they emulate.

Content. Substance. That’s what’s missing. Enthusiastic about what? Creative with what? Engaged with what? Curious about what?

There are some things about which one should not be curious. Curiosity is like energy: children typically have plenty of it, and responsible adults have to exert their authority to channel it in the right direction. Children may be curious about what happens when they kick the smallest boy in the class. They may run energetically onto a busy road without looking first.

And it’s hard to stop children from being creative. They come up with creative ways to cheat on tests and to break uniform rules without our help. But if we want them to use language creatively, or to interpret history creatively, we’ll have to put a lot of knowledge into their heads, and we’ll have to be clear about what that knowledge should be. We will need a carefully designed, content rich curriculum. And many, many hours of hard work will be required to master the content.

This hard work may not involve the broad, toothy grins which are plastered all over the typical school website, but it will generate a quiet, deep and lasting satisfaction: the satisfaction of achieving a worthy goal through persistent effort.

(Image from Wikimedia).