Tag Archives: Schools

Schools Are Not Businesses. A Message to Lord Nash.

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Lord Nash, speaking at the Challenge Partnership national conference, titled his talk: ‘what is relevant in business to education?’ According to the TES, he said that:

“…too often teachers have confused their individuality with their professionalism… Being a professional means embracing accountability, standardisation and consistency, although of course we want our teachers to be inspiring.”

He went on to talk about how: ‘using standardised content would allow teachers to focus on delivery and differentiation, and would reduce workload.’

Adding it was impossible to: “run an organisation of any size and any diversity, efficiently and effectively if you haven’t got consistent procedures… The content has to be provided by the MAT based on evidence-based best practice across the group.”

Perhaps it is inevitable with the introduction of MATs that business issues and practices would soon come to the fore. A local school that had its own identity serving the local area would not have had to consider ‘standardisation and consistency’ to any great extent. Games staff would teach games and the physics teacher would teach physics. When you have a MAT the temptation is to have a consistent brand, in which all the teachers teach their subjects in the same ‘branded’ way. It might also be a revenue stream, selling branded curricula, lesson plans, scripts and powerpoint slides to other schools and maybe even provide ‘MOOCs’ for those who home educate or live in places where schools are difficult to access. With a standardised brand consistency might be considered key.

McDonalds, at first glance as standardised a company as you can get, soon realised that the problem with standardisation is it’s lack of adaptability.  They developed a: “…consistent customer experience and branding while still allowing for locally relevant menu and service variations in segments across the globe…”

This tension between standardisation and adaptability is an interesting one. The ‘brand’ thrives if it can sell itself as a consistent experience, when I go for a Costa coffee or buy some Marmite, I am responding to this consistency. I prefer not to take too many risks when spending my cash. And, thankfully, I like Marmite. Imagine what would happen if Marmite tried to change in order to appeal to those who dislike it, they would lose my custom, the very reason that I like Marmite might be the thing they have to change to bring in customers who don’t like the bitter taste. Adaptability can be problematic.

It is interesting that Lord Nash feels standardisation rather than adaptability is the business model that schools should adopt. He suggests standardisation would require staff to be less individualistic and more professional. I question whether this is the dichotomy here. I think the role of teachers would change, but instead of being more professional, their profession changes. They become more like a sales staff. They are provided with the product, the ‘standardised content’, and then they are required to sell this product ‘differentially’ to different consumers. As someone who worked in sales for a period of time one of the adages was that a good salesperson must believe in their product. A period of training (ITT?) would be required to sell the the product to the workforce, to convince them of its efficacy and then train them with the techniques of teaching about and selling the product to the customers, in this case pupils and their parents.

Success rates of staff could be compared, figures shared, and each teacher would then be responsible for making it work, competitively, showing they could ‘sell’ the product through ‘delivery, differentiation and inspiration’ as Nash would have it.

This ‘differentiation’ that Nash talks of is, not ‘adaptability’ of product. The sales-teacher would be expected to deliver in the classroom. The teacher will try to sell marmite to all. Actually that is not quite fair, the ‘product’ will be far more varied than a jar of marmite can ever be, and maybe ‘adaptability’ can be provided by breadth of curriculum and content.

But whether we go to a McDonalds in Beijing, Berlin or Nairobi we still feel the corporate imprint. This standardisation is its strength and its weakness. Lovers of artisanal burgers, home made or made on an organic farm, believe McDonalds is decidedly second rate to the best of these burgers. McDonalds might need to entice you in with the promise of toys for your kids to make up for the mundanity of the product. Imagine the happy meal transposed to the classroom. Happy learning. Free toy with each maths exercise completed.

Are staff working within a standardised business really more professional than those who have more control over what they do? Being paid for doing a task that is imposed upon you is different to one which you have designed for yourself. As Cicero put it:

“vulgar are the means of livelihood of all hired workmen whom we pay for mere manual labour, not for artistic skill; for in their case the very wage they receive is a pledge of their slavery” Cicero: On Obligations

Although it is possible to enjoy your work when you work in this way it is a very different relationship with the school than teachers have been traditionally used to. This might be no bad thing, because if the school staff is made up of those with little artistic skill it is better to replace them with hired hands. Yet, there might be another way to achieve some form of consistency, to be true to the tradition of teaching, be adaptable and envisage teachers to be rather more professional than Nash’s view would seem to be.

When schools deliberately ape businesses, problems can occur. The Business Academy,  Bexley  opened to great fanfare in 2002:

…the concept of openness extends to the physical layout of the school, which is based around flexible, open areas, rather than corridors and classrooms…

Classrooms look more like hi-tech offices, with clusters of flat-screen display computers and lessons taught using touch-screen whiteboards.

…gushed the BBC, reflecting the cargo cult nature of the philosophy behind the school. Get Norman Foster to expensively design a school, which looks and runs like a business then all the positive aspects of business practice will imbue every individual who passes through. This proved to be a fallacious argument.

To many teachers it would have been obvious that problems might occur by doing away with corridors and classrooms. Experienced teachers’ professional expertise might be a useful rejoinder to the inevitable hubris of those who believe they have the right answers and reason on their side and are determined to use a top down model to impose this onto a workforce.

A school is not a business and should not be run as one. This is not to say it should be run badly or operate with a balance sheet in the red, but it should be run along different lines, it should be recognised that schools far from being merely rational places that can be measured with a simple ‘bottom-line’, they can be inconsistent, inefficient and completely devoid of standardisation and yet still be places in which good teaching takes place.

A school is not a business, it is an institution.

An institution, is a place of shared knowledge, grounded in emotions and feelings which then shape reason. This was essential to Edmund Burke’s idea in which we come ‘to love the little platoon we belong to…’ we inherit the wisdom of practices that are passed down to us. Far from being individuals, we are social animals, and rather than responding kindly to being fed from the top down for our manual labour, teaching has always been a collegiate activity within which teachers express their ‘artistry’, within the traditions of their school, subject and society.

A good school has a strong ethos through which all the differences can coexist, giving out a semblance of unity of purpose. Far from being imposed through a time and motion top down management model this comes about through various traditions coalescing in the institution.

A school is not the result of some grand plan or project, made up in some grand thinker’s study or laboratory, a school is a social institution, made stronger by man’s many interactions over the years. If one rides roughshod over all this sui generis history with the imposition of alien practices which have been proven to work in another domain one might lose the very heart of what kept the institution alive in the first place.

The making of a new school is not a soulless act of efficiencies and customer pleasing activities, it is about setting in place the means by which a school can grow into an institution. In this case the need for partnership is more, yes take notice of the ever evolving ideas of how to run a school but don’t base your school on current conventions,  base it on the tried and true ideas of centuries past that is embodied in the expertise of teachers, the history of subject teaching and the great teaching tradition. This could be MAT wide, it could form the basis of ‘product’ but it would be the product of an institutional, organic approach and not the business approach that threatens to de-professionalise the workforce.

Some sort of rights and liberties should be given to teachers to be creative in their classrooms. This is adaptability. But Nash is right about the dangers of individuality, a purely anarchic approach in which every teacher is a lone figure delivering curriculum in their own eccentric style will not help the progress of a child, if from year to year she has to relearn or learn stuff that was not rooted in previous learning or is at odds with it. The teacher is not a Grand Panjandrum but needs to work professionally as part of a team of teachers designing and reviewing their curriculum collectively responding in an agile way to the changing needs of society, represented mostly by the children who attend the school, their subject knowledge and by continually refreshing their professional expertise. They don’t become professional by being denied the need to be curriculum experts.

This relies on the teacher being ‘what they ought to be’, the professional, given the responsibility in which she can grow into that role. Teachers have, for centuries, developed habits, rules, and together have created subject disciplines, various canons, books, ways of teaching, tests, terms, without resorting to imposing a blueprint from above to improve their work. The risk might be that what is imposed from above, might be worse than what they already do. And, being imposed from above, its ability to adapt might be too slow.

Evidence-based practice across a group is an excellent idea but it requires flexibility in approach. A standardised approach does not have flexibility. Adaptability when decreed from the centre can only take its expertise from outside of the group, it devalues the professionals within the group even more by always having to bring in ideas from beyond. Innovation needs to come from within too, therefore anti-fragile adaptability needs to be part of the ethos of a MAT. It can achieve this by realising that schools are not businesses, they are institutions.

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On Milo and Free Speech in Schools

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The only purpose for which power can be rightfully exercised over any member of a civilised community, against his will, is to prevent harm to others. His own good, either physical or moral, is not a sufficient warrant. JS Mill

This week saw Milo Yiannopoulos banned after discussions with the DfE’s Counter Extremism Unit from speaking at his old school, the Simon Langton Grammar School for Boys, a school from which he was expelled eleven years ago. Apparently the concern was that there might have been demonstrations against him that might have got out of hand and the reputation of the school might be harmed in some way. Meanwhile, in Scotland, (Gorgeous) George Galloway who had spoken at  Dollar Academy in Clackmannanshire that morning was later ‘attacked’ (Glitter Bombed) by a group of five people led, according to Galloway by a ‘Trans and an anarchist’, at a speaking event at the University of Aberdeen.

As Galloway said:

Few weeks go by when the ‘identity politics’ crowd don’t strike one campus or another either physically or with their ‘no platform’ demands.

Galloway is right, there are too many people who rather than argue and debate with people wish to close down debate entirely and whether they are groups of demonstrators or state agencies we should do whatever we can to ensure free speech in our places of learning.

Katie Hopkins wrote in the Daily Mail (check your personal triggers at this point) that:

Rather than let the 220 pupils who had signed up to hear him speak, listen, challenge him and make up their own minds, it was decided that exposing pupils to anything other than a liberal viewpoint could be damaging.

Hopkins has a point when she says that too many, so called ‘liberals’ are:

The… champions of diversity who will not tolerate diversity of thought or opinion.

This is an important point. If children in our schools, who can access a wide range of opinions online, are unable to access a range of thoughts, ideas and opinions when at school and are able to see how these ideas stack up under scrutiny then are they being educated properly?

But there is a problem with extreme views, they are not ‘harmless’.

In the Guardian the murderer of Jo Cox MP, Thomas Mair, was described in the following way:

Mair was racist and a terrorist in the making, his home stuffed with far-right books and Nazi memorabilia and his mind brimming with a belief that white people were facing an existential threat. “The white race,” Mair once wrote, was about to be plunged into “a very bloody struggle”. His greatest obsession, however, and his deepest bitterness was over those white people whom he condemned in his writings as “the collaborators”: the liberals, the left and the media.

Mair accessed his local library’s computers, looking up such things as the BNP, white supremacists, Nazis and public shootings, the Ku Klux Klan, the Waffen SS, Israel, serial killers and matricide. His hatred fuelled by his reading and his reclusiveness.

If we were to apply Mill’s principles on Liberty to Mair, we would have to make a decision about what point someone becomes a danger to others. This is a judgement call and would also necessitate some form of scrutiny of a person’s private life in order to ascertain whether they might be a danger.

David Aaronovitch pointed out in this week’s Times:

I have yet to come across an example of a public figure murdered by a mad liberal whose home was found to be stocked with books by John Stuart Mill and covered in slogans calling for proportional representation

The centre must hold. There are certain aspects of a person’s views that might alert us to further problems. This is where ‘society’ takes a view but one in which it can overreach itself, Mill, again:

when society is itself the tyrant – society collectively over the separate individuals who compose it – its means of tyrannising are not restricted to the acts which it may do by the hands of its public functionaries. Society can and does execute its own mandates: and if it issues wrong mandates instead of right; or any mandates at all in things in which it ought not to meddle, it practices a social tyranny more formidable than many kinds of political oppression, since though not usually upheld by such extreme penalties, it leaves fewer means of escape, penetrating much more deeply into the details of life, and enslaving the soul itself.  

Those who call for a no platform have a point, we know people have been radicalised  by hate preachers and fundamentalist Muslim extremism and far right extremism are two of the most obvious dangers to our way of life but is that a good enough reason to ban Milo from speaking at his old school?

No. There is considerable difficulty at the heart of Mill’s liberal utilitarianism, but it is not, in his view, for the State to make moral judgements about us unless those actions are going to harm others. The school invited Milo and wished to question him about his views, this is clearly not a school in which pupils will be brainwashed by his ideas and then go on to do harm to others. That his views can be easily found online, often in the context of having little scrutiny means that they would probably have had a ‘safer’ space in which to analyse his thinking than they do now as the talk failed to materialise. The idea that the school which expelled Milo would have some harm done to its reputation is ridiculous and if potential demonstrations are a problem then it’s for the police to ensure freedom of speech is upheld as a principle as far as is possible.

It is the danger of views not being open to scrutiny that should worry us more. The more we can argue with those with whom we disagree the better. That some are a danger to others is not the argument, we know this and these people should be dealt with before they can do harm to others. If only Mair could have been prevented from carrying out his disgusting crime, the better for us all.

If anything, more schools should be inviting the likes of Milo and Galloway to speak to their pupils, however, it might be better that schools forgo the idea of having people  ‘preach’ to their pupils and ensure, instead, that equally eloquent speakers are pitched against them. Debate specific issues, invite these people to make their argument in the context of the topic of your choice and through the discipline of a formal debate so that their views can be tied down and exposed to forensic examination.

It’s the hiding away of views or the exposure to unchallenged platitudes that can foment more trouble.

The Future Fallacy

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Most people know nothing about learning; many despise it. Dummies reject as too hard whatever is not dumb. 
 Thomas More, Utopia

The future fallacy occurs when someone makes a comment about what the future will be like and then says: ‘therefore we should be doing (insert something here)…’

The 21st century skills argument is exactly this, ‘in the future people will need to collaborate more, be more creative and be prepared for change.’ This is a future fallacy because no-one knows what the future will be like, they can guess but they do not know.

The most bizarre aspect of this fallacy is the way that people lap it up, at education conferences I have heard so many people tell us what the future will be like in order to justify how we should be educating our kids in the present. The most absurd example is the oft repeated one that we should prepare children for the jobs that have yet to be invented, which, in itself is delightfully ridiculous, but when allied to the statement: therefore we should teach them 21st century skills of collaboration, creativity, critical thinking etc. is even more surreal, it’s as if the speaker has a crystal ball but they refuse to tell us what the jobs will be like because, like the recipe for KFC, it has to be kept secret. Except even that chicken is now out of the bag.

Sugar Mitra sometimes falls into this trap:

Within a few decades, institutions began to dematerialise – banking, the stock exchange, entertainment, newspapers, books, money were all strings of zeros and ones inside the evolving Internet that is now simply called ‘The Cloud’. It is already omnipresent and indestructible. In a few more decades, it will probably be sentient, non-material and, therefore, eternal…

We need a curriculum of Big Questions, pedagogy of self-organised learning, examinations where children can talk, share and use the Internet, and new, peer assessment systems. People don’t need to be machines anymore. In the Age of The Cloud, schools have to become Schools of The Cloud.

Next time you hear someone tell you what the future will be like, challenge them, for they are in cloud cuckoo land. The next time someone tells you what the future will be like and therefore we have to change what we are doing in schools point out, gently, that this is the full future fallacy in operation. If the speaker is unaware of how fallacious her argument is and she takes it for granted that what she is saying is true and makes it seem like common sense that we should therefore be doing things differently in our schools, beware, for she is basing her argument on the future fallacy but is unaware of this fact.

The only thing we can know is the past and, even that, is open to various interpretations, so arguments and disagreements are always going to be part of our discourse, and long may they be so. Just beware of the futurologists who try to shut down debate by telling you of tomorrow’s utopia and how we should prepare for it, for they know not what they say.

When Push Comes to Shove: Kant’s Dove

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The dove, in free flight cutting through the air the resistance of which it feels, could get the idea that it could do even better in airless space.  Immanuel Kant: Critique of Pure Reason

Pity our free spirits, constrained by the school and kicking against the pricks. Teenagers, angst ridden, knowing full well if the school wasn’t there they would be free! Free to be themselves! They could be a contender! Free to make a difference to the world!

A great school tries to get kids to, metaphorically, fly. To the pupils this can sometimes seem like the opposite and it just isn’t fair, in fact it’s a drag; literally.

Weight, lift, thrust and drag are all needed to fly.

Opposite forces can combine to help achieve what can’t be achieved by doing away with those forces that might seem to hinder.

Ensuring the right balance is achieved is an art. Too much drag, too much push and too much pull…

No-one can breath in an airless space.

 

My Worst Job Interview

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I was running late, grabbed some toast, said goodbye “good luck!” came the reply and with that I set off, no worries I thought, the school will offer me coffee…

I arrived at the school on a drizzly summer day and pressed the buzzer, the door opened and in I went. Reception was packed with kids being dealt with, I was at the back of the queue, fifteen minutes later I was able to sign in and taken to a small, stuffy, room in which there were 12 chairs. I had been the first to arrive at 8am, my allotted time, I was told the others would be arriving at half hourly intervals and, yes, there were to be twelve of us. By 9am, gasping for a coffee, I and my two fellow interviewees asked whether there was any chance of a cup? No, we were told, but there was water. Grateful for anything we accepted. Water it was.

One of my fellow interviewees had stayed over in a hotel the night before and the other had come by train, that morning, from Bristol to London. Another arrived, newly flown in via London City airport from Scotland, it was 9.30 am and we were shown around the school by a couple of year 9 pupils who didn’t think much of the school.

When we got back from our travels we were handed a timetable for the day and my main interview, because my surname was R and there were no Smiths or Taylors, would not be until the end of the day.

We condemned interviewees sat in our stuffy room, chatting, wondering what to do and a new applicant arrived with the news that they had heard there was an internal candidate. A deputy head arrived to take someone up for interview, a candidate who had yet to have the inspirational look around the school, we asked whether it was true and we were told yes it was true and that he currently had the role on an ‘acting’ basis, he had had the role for the year and he was applying for the permanent position. At that point the person from Scotland withdrew and looked mightily relieved.

My tummy was rumbling, the others went off for dinner but it was time for me to do ‘the test’, I was taken to the library, given a ‘test paper’ with various questions about what I would do if…. The test was timed, I was hungry, pleased with my answers… But hungry…

I returned from the test and was immediately taken along to the dreaded pupil panel. This consisted of eight year 9 pupils who asked a variety of pertinent questions if they had been asked by adults, they were probably penned with the help of adults, but elicited awkward responses from me as I felt nervous about divulging personal details about my life and experiences to a group of thirteen year olds. I had to stop myself for asking for some chewing gum that most of them clearly had access to…

Beyond hunger I returned to the ‘room’, others talked about the poor quality lunch and I asked the receptionist when I could have mine, only to be informed I had missed it. I enquired as to whether there was a shop nearby and she informed me it was half an hour’s walk away and that my presentation ‘preparation’ time began in twenty minutes. I felt imprisoned by some bizarre regime whose job was to torture me in a variety of ingenious ways.

I asked for some water.

I watched as a plate of sandwiches were taken in to the main ‘interview room’.

Why did I stay? God knows.

I prepared a presentation on a given topic in my allotted half hour and was told to wait until the panel were ready.

Then, finally, it was my time to be interviewed. There were twelve people on the panel and a rather unassuming person introduced themselves as the Head teacher but only after the student voice rep had introduced herself, a parent governor, a teacher governor, assorted deputies of this and that and the other, a union official, and an interested parent observer and a couple of heads of department.

They had empty plates in front of them, coffee cups…

I did a great presentation but as the interview progressed I began to fall apart, hungry, feeling like an idiot for not withdrawing, upset with the way I had been treated, I felt angry and tearful. I didn’t want to show it, but my answers became more and more wild and ill considered, I was past caring.

But I still cared, I needed a job.

That evening I was rung up by the Head who told me I hadn’t got the job. I asked him who had, he said they had decided to offer the job to the internal candidate and had decided they didn’t need to interview him. I was apoplectic I gave the Head teacher a piece of my mind about how awful the whole day had been and how he could improve the whole process coffee and food featured highly in my feedback. He said he didn’t have to listen to this and put the phone down on me.

At the end of the following Autumn term I heard that the Head had been dismissed, suddenly, for unknown reasons. This gave me the opportunity for a wry smile, I wonder what had gone wrong?

Remove Managerialism from the Classroom

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Managerialism is the idea that quantifiable administrative approaches are the correct way to run institutions. Efficiency is all and it can sometimes be value free in that what works becomes more important than what’s right. Employees become pawns in the game of delivery and the idea of management as neutral and post-ideological holds sway. The sociologist Max Weber referred to this idea as the iron cage of rationality, where measurable control of goals shape the lives of people and institutions. The use of technology, bureaucracy, and targets ensures all become slaves to the machine with the manager, their flow chart and tick box being the lynchpin around whom all must be busy.

Managerialism is an ideology that pretends not to be one and although a maverick leader might say they are not interested in such things they often put in place people who are wedded to efficient processing as important parts of their leadership teams.

Weber thought the iron cage was the inevitable result of enlightenment thinking that greater wisdom and freedom will result from rationalisation, he wrote that:

For the “last man” (letzten Mensches  of this cultural development, it might well be truly said: “Specialist without spirit, sensualist without heart; this nullity imagines that it has attained a level of humanity (Menschentums) never before achieved”  (1904)

Disempowered individuals become cogs in the machine. In schools these cogs are pupils and staff and, indeed, leaders. The questions to ask are: Is managerialism the main way schools are run? If so, at what cost? Are there any alternatives? What different way could schools be run?

My answers to these questions would be a resounding yes to managerialism being the default mode of school leadership and that this is at a cost to those who work and study in the institutions and also to the qualitative experience of studying itself. Yes, there are alternatives, and that amongst these alternatives is the need for the experience in the classroom to be one where the study of the subject reigns supreme rather than the needs of the bureaucracy. The pursuit of wisdom through the art of learning about the best that has been thought and said should be paramount and any managerialist desire to infect that is a breaking of the spirit of education.

Schools and Freedom of Speech

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Reason is, and ought only to be the slave of the passions

David Hume

Try as we might to be rational beings, devoid of emotions, especially in times of crisis it is in times of crisis when we can’t help but notice we are nothing of the sort. When we experience visceral reactions to events we often give words to our feelings and we shout out into the void. Such has been the temerity of recent events to upset our proverbial apple carts that we can’t help running around, picking up those metaphorical apples, only to see them roll further from us and the few we have clutched to our bosom look lonely in comparison, so we shout. Our beliefs, traditions, certainties guide us in the best of times, these beliefs are not the result of reasoned argument, rather they are the result of custom. Those of a rational bent might say that this is a bad thing but I would argue it is a positive. Positive because it retains as central to the human condition a healthy dose of doubt although we might forever ignore this fact feeling. Rather than use reason to defend our feelings, use it, when we can, as the slave to our deep seated uncertainties. Feelings and reason, side by side, with feelings the ‘master’ and reason the ‘slave’; we feel wronged, but have we been, we feel on top of the world, but should we?

When beliefs are challenged, when certainties are taken from us we become fearful, tearful, angry, depressed… and it is at moments like this when instead of being most sure that we are the only righteous ones in the world and everyone else is mad, bad and dangerous to know, we should be at our most doubtful. As I look around for ‘I told you so…’ justifications for my thoughts, evidence that I was right and you were wrong, so that my conscience may be salved, I should do so with underlying doubt. When circumstances change we have to examine our outlook in response.

Those of a liberal disposition who have spent the last few years in the ascendancy, changing the world economically and socially to be more individualistic, global, connected, tolerant, competitive, creative are having to come face to face with the idea of nationhood, nationalism, community, intolerance, the desire to disconnect, the downside of competition: areas where optimism might fear to tread, and it’s a shock. Some people who last week were castigating other people for a lack of optimism are the pessimists now.

Should they be? Why not? It would be dishonest to their feelings to be anything but. Yet, if custom is to be our guide, there are positives – firstly principles: this is a time to reexamine and make positive changes – witness our two political parties reacting to their gut instincts – time for change that restates what their parties might be for and the pursuit of power in a democracy. That this is occurring now should be no surprise and is an essential part of making things better. A general election ought to follow. A liberal party and, maybe, other parties of the centre need to strengthen if our two main parties veer to left and right, why? Custom: we need the centre.

Look at the large global companies, countries, organisations that have moved beyond the human scale and look to how some of these big brands have delighted in being ‘disruptors’ for the communities they have long since lost touch with, desiring instead to be part of an almost bizarre homogenous, idealistic, utopian, cosmopolitanism in which all people can live in a non-multi-cultural space in which diversity is to be celebrated by all wearing pastel colours, drinking Starbucks, connecting via Apple, driving a Volkswagen, wearing Nike, and supporting Manchester United; diverse under the same or similar branded umbrella. This vision of liberalism became far from liberal, intolerant of diversity it sought to impose a happy-clappy utopia onto the world. Now liberalism is in danger of losing its grip entirely maybe it is time to reject this pseudo-liberalism and replace it with the real thing.

Schools can be part of a solution, by returning to first principles and rather than trying to ‘disrupt’ themselves they should concentrate on what they do best and provide stability in troubled times. Schools should be building links with community, nation and nations, and instead of a tick box pursuit of liberal idealism where nobody is right wing, racist, sexist, or homophobic, where all things intersect and victimhood takes centre stage, where intolerance of intolerance is in danger of closing down debate and where ‘western’ means all things bad, we need our feelings to guide us and have them brought out into the open.

And then what? Blood on the walls? Reason must counteract – argument and debate – patient, well argued, well thought through and, yes, emotional too. For too long we have tried to deny some voices and then recoil in horror when they shout and we resort to the most extreme measures to shut them up, and so we should… As Aditya Chakrabortty  points out racist belligerence, boorishness and downright dangerous viciousness can be encouraged when “cabinet ministers, party leaders and prime-ministerial wannabes sprinkle arguments with racist poison. When intolerance is not only tolerated, but indulged and encouraged.” This needs to be stamped upon as it has been in the past, let custom be our guide – draw on the cry from The Battle of Cable Street: ‘They shall not pass’ and resist with every sinew. But might it be better to also challenge these thoughts at their root rather than just relying on suppressing them when it is almost too late?

When I was at school I had a friend who was proud of his National Front views, he would air them regularly, even to his friends who were black. Instead of no-platforming him, we played, talked, debated with him, told him he was an idiot, got angry, argued and continued over time so to do. We didn’t think it through, this was no co-ordinated plan, we had no idea there was such a thing as ‘no-platforming’, we were just kids, trying to make sense of a complex world. It worked… well, by worked, I mean he changed from being a fascist to becoming a sweet, loving, anarchist hippy/punk type; whatever floats your boat maaaaaan.

In schools, voices should not be shut up – for this is where debate is of most urgent importance, because these children are makers of the future and it is within them that solutions need to be found. This is not easy but it is an essential part of strengthening a consensual democracy. Space needs to be found for arguments to be exposed and not shut away so that feelings turn into simmering resentment and airing of reactionary thoughts retreat back into the safe space of home or group. Our institutions need to encompass real difference, not become ‘safe spaces’ for those who all agree. We need unsafe spaces – not dangerous spaces but spaces where confrontation and debate can take place and instead of intimidating people on trams, at bus stops, and through Naziesque propaganda, the challenge to these, what I consider, abhorrent ideas needs to happen not from a position of shocked defence but one of engaged attack.

All should understand that a muscular liberalism can assert ‘moral truths’ about conduct, that violence and bullying is wrong and that this might include grey areas but if in a school election there is a fascist candidate let them stand and face the arguments and maybe, even, vitriol from their peers. Let them feel it. Liberal democracy needs voices, it is consensual not through physical violence, nor from the violence of excluding people from that debate, but from the  agreed position that freedom of speech is one of its central tenets. Abhorrent views need to be challenged in the open and not just dismissed as ‘wrong’ and closed down.

It is customary to say that free speech is sacrosanct, do the customs of your school have that enshrined? Teach kids to argue and debate about stuff and get them busy strengthening their community so that they can reach out to each other, to the future and to the world with ‘an open hand’ rather than, later, with a closed fist.

 

 

 

Maybe Scream! Anxiety and the Young…

The_Scream.jpg

Natasha Devon, the Government’s ex Mental Health ‘Tsar’ said recently that: “Time and time again over recent years young people – and the people who teach them – have spoken out about how a rigorous culture of testing and academic pressure is detrimental to their mental health… Anxiety is the fastest growing illness in under 21s. These things are not a coincidence.”

These things are not a coincidence…

Maybe they are a coincidence; maybe they’re not. What they are, of course, is a convenient narrative, and perhaps testing and academic pressure is part of the problem but other things could be too.

In this piece Annie Murphy-Paul points to research that our ‘Smart-phones’ might be making us miserable, she concludes:

“A human mind is a wandering mind, and a wandering mind is an unhappy mind… While it’s true that our minds seem naturally inclined to wander, our technological devices make the problem considerably worse. You’ll be happier if you focus on what you’re doing right here, right now—and that means putting your phone away whenever possible.”

That smart-phone usage has increased over the past twenty years (from 0%) and especially for younger people I could say:  “Anxiety is the fastest growing illness in under 21s: these things are not a coincidence.” In fact, it says ‘technological devices’ – maybe all computers, tablets, games etc??!!!? “Anxiety is the fastest growing illness in under 21s: these things are not a coincidence.”

Other things might add to anxiety, group work and behaviour add to teenage resentment according to an article in Education Week, maybe this sort of practice has increased over the past few years? “Anxiety is the fastest growing illness in under 21s: these things are not a coincidence.”

Maybe anxiety is increasing because of identity politics and the “intense debate about trigger warnings, a term that is 20 years old“?

Maybe the whole twenty-first century skills dogma is causing anxiety? Telling children they have to prepare for jobs that don’t yet exist is not exactly comforting… In a competitive world, where we are told that robots will take even middle class jobs! And they will have to compete with people who will work harder, for less, and that the halcyon days of workers’ rights might be over as bosses look to exploit their workforce

In the future, we are told, our children will have to study on and on to accrue qualifications and work until they are eighty years old and will never be able to afford a house in which to live so will be forever renting and sharing… That our kids are informed that they won’t be able to have a loving relationship that lasts a lifetime, that sugar is killing them, that antibiotics are failing to work, that airplanes will fall from the sky and people will kill them in concerts, on holiday, at football matches… 24/7 media tells them incessantly,  with more lurid headlines that vie for attention on paper and online…

Or maybe Cultural relativism stresses children out: ‘Hey, there is no truth, your opinion is equally valid to mine…’ Maybe when they have all the information in the world (mediated by large West-Coast global conglomerates) at their finger tips, ask a question and get millions of replies then that is stressful…

Maybe when many of the replies they get are sponsored but, hey, an advert is equally valid to a critical text written by an undercover journalist with a left wing axe to grind…

And, how many adverts do they see, do ‘we’ see, every day? Buy this, believe in this, you too can look like this… And ads pop up, pop up, pop up, stop you reading the clickbait, clickbait, clickbait and pop up, pop up, pop up…

And social media where all your friends are doing better than you, looking better than you, having more fun than you, exist in sunnier days than you…

And classrooms where all the ‘short term attention spans’ are catered for, speed up, be fast, lots of busy activities, they can’t concentrate for long so don’t help them learn to…

And parents who, terrified that every adult left alone with their child is a paedophile, so insist on accompanying their children every step of the way, whilst informing them… “When I was your age I was out in the fields all day, playing on my own or with mates and I was never touched up by a TV personality, priest or politician, though I was offered sweets once by a retired Scout Master…”

And parents whose work/life balance is so askew that they are constantly on call to work, knowing a slip up or two might mean the sack, must reply to this email, oh and this one, and this text, sorry love can’t play today…

AND that BREXIT is a ‘high-risk bet for our children

“Anxiety is the fastest growing illness in under 21s: these things are not a coincidence.”

Maybe we all need to slow down, take a deep breath, and think – if it’s true that anxiety is on the increase in the young, maybe some things are a coincidence and somethings may not be, however there are things over which we have power to do something about in our classrooms and in our homes today, but will we? Or do we want the narrative to affirm our already held beliefs and prejudices, after all, ‘there is no truth’…

What should we do? What can we do? What will we do?

 

For Too Many Years School Leaders Have Been Trying to ‘Reinvent the Wheel’…

…School leaders should spend their time ‘rediscovering the wheel’.

Emperor's New Clothes

School leaders should spend their time grappling with the ‘big ideas’ and they should be reading about and discussing the things that matter. They should lead their staff in great conversations about the things that matter. Unfortunately too many school leaders are using the slogans and ideas that originate in the business world to try to ape global enterprises. They get their staff suited and booted, and bring in the latest graphs to represent the biggest data they can find. They follow the latest ‘research’ uncritically and get their staff to do inset on anything that seems to be working. There is a problem following business and that is most companies don’t last long.  The average US company in the 1920’s lasted 67 years, in 2012 this was down to 15 years. In the UK we have some of the oldest schools in the world, we shouldn’t be following the business world, if anything the business world should be following our education institutions.

Intriguingly some thoughtful people in the corporate world are onto the problem and, just as schools are being influenced more and more by business practices, they are looking elsewhere. Whilst some head teachers are picking up the latest neuro-bollocks-books with jazzy covers and getting their middle leaders to go on courses with titles like: ‘How to Squeeze the Last Drop of blood C-Grade Success From a Free School Meal Urchin’; some ‘CEO’s’ are turning away from short-term solutions. These leaders are putting away their tired business manuals and no longer hiring consultants who peddle this year’s big new idea based on ‘pop psychology’ or barely understood ‘shallow science’ and are turning to the great books and thinkers of the past. They take a moment to pause and to realise that: “The only way to become a real thought leader is to ignore all this noise and listen to a few great thinkers. You will learn far more about leadership from reading Thucydides’s hymn to Pericles than you will from a thousand leadership experts.”

Head teachers, school leadership teams and teachers should be rediscovering the core beliefs that enabled western education to thrive throughout the centuries. The danger signs that many are ignoring the great intellectual inheritance are all around us. Has the theory of ‘Mindset’, the idea of ‘Assessment for Learning’, the ofsted-inspired-over-marking of every book in a variety of different coloured pens, the mind-mapped, brain gymed, thinking hatted, two stars and a wish, wilt, walt, managed to divert your school from the central purpose of educating children in the pursuit of wisdom to help them flourish in their lives?

The oldest company in the world is said to be Nissiyama Onsen Keiunkan, a Japanese hotel founded in 705. In Japan they have a word for long-lived companies: Shinise. “Professor Makoto Kanda, who has studied shinise for decades, says that Japanese companies can survive for so long because they are small… and because they focus on a central belief or credo that is not tied solely to making a profit.” This is what great schools do, they focus on a central belief or credo and are not tied solely to shoving more and more kids into getting ever higher exam results in ever more subjects. A great school will communicate its central credo well. A school that chops and changes without a central core to keep it steady will chase results, ofsted rumours, and the latest fad at its peril. A central credo can be represented by an eloquent school motto but some schools have even cheapened this with ugly business speak. Who would want their child to attend a school whose ethos is summed up by unfortunate corporate cliches like ‘reach for the sky’ or ‘team workers for citizenship’? These are empty aphorisms that show the school wears its Emperor’s New Clothes without a sense of shame, an inarticulate central credo is of no use to anyone.

A school with a strong central belief has a great core or spine around which somewhat paradoxically it can innovate. Great institutions change with the times but don’t change their mission. A great tradition is the backdrop for great innovation. Too many schools are so focused on the next big idea that they lose sight of the great ideas on which education is based. This is why the sub title of my book Trivium 21c is: ‘Preparing Young People for the Future With Lessons From the Past.’ If you always look to reinvent the wheel there comes a point when the wheel no longer works, it might no longer roll down a hill but it’s squareness is a huge disadvantage going up the hill!

It is time for great school leaders to take note and stop trying to ape the here today gone tomorrow businesses, instead of management speak and the corporate lingo of targets and objectives get your staff talking about the great stories, philosophers and educationalists of the past and rediscover the core purpose of education.

Instead of trying to emulate TESCO find out about a bit of PLATO, Aristotle, Hume, Oakeshott, Peirce, Aquinas, Augustine et al… Oh and read my book and get me to come into your school to help you with some ‘inward-bound’ courses to start the great conversation with your staff. (Paradox?)

Monkeying About: A Roy Hodgson moment

Reading about Roy Hodgson’s ‘space monkey’ joke and how it has caused a furore reminded me of an incident in school about five years ago. I was walking through a corridor when a white year eight girl went past me with a little, and he was very little, black year seven boy who she had on ‘a lead’ (a piece of string attached to his school tie). In itself this was unusual enough, but she was encouraging him to follow her by cajoling him with the phrase: “Come on my little Monkey!” I stopped her immediately: “Excuse me,” says I, “What did you just say?!?” To which she replied innocently: “I said ‘come on my little monkey’, sir.” I looked at her and said: “You can’t say that, you can’t call him your little monkey!” The boy who looked very upset said to me: “But I AM her little monkey sir, and she’s taking me back to the zoo!” Now I was very flustered, a white girl with a black boy on a lead and her calling him a little monkey was surely a clear-cut case of racism. Yet they both looked at me so innocently, and I could tell they didn’t want me to spoil their ‘imaginative game’. I prevaricated, I muttered something about how you shouldn’t say such things, so be careful or something and I let them carry on. They went away with the joie de vivre of two little children playing a great game.

The innocence of the children makes me laugh but the event still disturbs. Should I have dealt with it differently? I wonder if I had reported it what the reaction would have been to the black and white words on the page away from the context of the actual event…