“Whoso beset him round
With dismal stories
Do but themselves confound…” John Bunyan, Pilgrim’s Progress
For the pupil, progress relies on hope, a belief in a journey towards a point of completion and an idea that ultimate salvation is just one more bit of effort away. This promised land, in which there shall be ‘seraphims and cherubims’ and an eternal life of joy, will be won when the child has moved from a state of incompletion towards the superior state of ‘got some good exam grades’. Physically a child starts school small and finishes it tall, progress has clearly been made. Academically you start school without any certificates and you end with an Ebacc and an A level or two, or, God forbid, a vocational qualification, as you trudge towards the closed factory gate to the newly opened call centre. Rather than a heavenly pursuit, a pupil’s progress is tied to these rather mundane goals.
Teachers have algorithms to set their pupils targets. They distribute these goals like manna from heaven and report: “If Jacinta wishes to progress to a B grade she will need to knuckle down and work hard until the exam.” Then they track her progress towards that goal. This has become the extent of their ambition, justified by the belief that the B grade in such and such subject will get her a job in animal husbandry or law or a part time job in a beauticians. The belief in progress is underpinned by a dour utopian utility.
Most children make expected progress, which therefore isn’t really progress at all, it is doing as expected, so why is it fetishised so much? Because it can be measured, and if the underprivileged progress more than the privileged then all the added value boxes will be ticked and all will have really achieved (except the privileged who will have under-performed) and the bastions of privilege will come crashing to the ground and all will surrender to the new meritocratic reality: the meek will inherit the earth.
But this won’t happen.
And nor should it.
Progress is an anathema to a humane education, it is bowing out of our responsibility towards each other by sacrificing education on the altar of hope in a suburban heaven on earth, which is always one more qualification away, where we think perfection is attainable, – but only by adding an extra GCSE, PGCE BA, MA or a Ph effing D… Education – inflation, inflation, inflation.
Instead of the hubris of ever marching progress we need to learn how to remain still, how to be us in the here and now. Teachers can’t make the future for their pupils, they must allow them to make it for themselves. Teachers should introduce pupils to the best that has been thought, said and done and enable their charges to begin to add to the best that has been thought, said and done; initiate them into how to use judgement, discernment, and discrimination, introduce them to past successes and mistakes, and share with them that humanity is a flawed state of being. No matter how perfect we believe our systems to be, teachers should not spend all their energies supporting systems of progress that insist pupils sacrifice themselves to the demands of a mechanistic target grade with its accompanying objectives and computer generated statements. The subject matter that is taught is more important and interesting than any grade; discovery and adventure more important than the progress myth and its simplistic goals.
Pupils need to practise in order to live a good life, so support them in forever becoming. Teach, don’t track. Focus on ideas, knowledge, practice and debate, and not grades. Encourage children to do something now, for its own sake, and not in the mistaken belief that it will make them a better person, get them a better job or help them progress towards a far off, dull and distinctly obtainable, goal. Instead of these dismal stories offer them adventure in the never ending pursuit of wisdom.