Sir John Everett Millais The Boyhood of Raleigh, 1870
Perhaps the stripy tops and nautical imagery have overwhelmed me this week. If we were a ship entering harbour at the end of term then what are we doing now? In dock being - what's the term? - fitted out? What happens in school in the hols?
Infrastructure, enabling works, drainage on the west field, painting and decorating. Refurbishing the foyer, tidying classrooms, clearing emails, moving offices, not being ruled by the bells but working at another pace. Wandering about without any shoes on, archiving stuff, battening down the hatches for when we put to sea again.
And much more. Thinking, preparing for new roles, writing schemes of work, hosting the summer school, sixth form enrolment. Quiet reflection on what we know, about our subjects and how to teach them. Reading new books, and research, reflecting on our pedagogy: what went well, what needs changing, what could be better, what’s new. Dragging our families to bizarrely fascinating subject-related destinations. And we think about the assessments we have and the progress that our young people have made. National attention is focused on the 16 and 18 year olds, but we are on a longer voyage.
What really would be news would be if Eton decided to stop entering pupils for any public examinations until the system was reformed. Then, especially if a number of other such schools followed suit, we might get a Royal Commission with the remit to examine both why such an anti-educational system of examinations had emerged and what might be the alternatives.
No complex modern education system could exist without some form of examination system….. The problem is that the relationships between public examinations, the curriculum …and the professional work of teachers, have become grossly distorted. Instead of examinations guiding teachers and students and providing feedback on the curriculum, they have come to replace the curriculum in deciding what is taught and how, and to be a major control force over teachers’ pedagogy and student learning. Taken to its limits, this turns teachers into technicians and all but the very highest achieving students into exam fodder, those that do not give up.
This is a constant struggle, but we still find time sensibly to assimilate and use the subject knowledge we believe to be important despite the constant churn of national curriculum and examination specifications which require different changes for different reasons almost every year.
Ten years or so ago I read Redmond O'Hanlon's Trawler in which this greatest of travel writers is quietly but comprehensively terrified by everything about an Orkney trawler in the North Atlantic. At one point he clutches the arms of his chair in a force 8 gale and remembers the 'six degrees of freedom' he'd read about somewhere: pitch, roll, sway, heave, surge and yaw. I’ve had this in my diary ever since. It serves as a useful, if unfortunate metaphor for the education policies that create our weather.
This year’s GCSEs nationally are characterised either by recalibration or volatility, depending on your commentator. Either way, they call for sturdy sea legs, but this is nothing new. It is always the case that results are simultaneously wonderful and disappointing, and young people euphoric and upset.
The change in the weather that would make the most difference to schools is for us to enter a period of calm so that we may concentrate on our scholarly curriculum and expert teaching. That’s something else we do in the holidays: think about knowledge that is powerful and important for our young people and how to make it irresistible to them. Let’s hope the exam debate attracts a following wind so we get a better chance to do it.
It only remains for me to cry ahoy there to our new staff, new year 7, our biggest ever year 12 and all their parents. And ahoy there to all those who've sailed with us before. We're glad you've chosen us and we're ready, whatever the weather.