The things that really matter in school are very simple. Safety, good teachers and good relationships cover it all. Safety is foremost now and our response is rooted in my love of a queue. Lots of lovely lines in zones that keep year groups apart as best we can and every class has to be fetched and returned, like a very unwieldy library book. The lines are a nice way to start the day in nice weather, The solution to not-so-nice weather is best described as a work in progress involving umbrellas. Students being towed from place to place by teachers means they don’t all get jammed in doorways with other year groups.
Its 0905 and from my eyrie there’s a beautiful sight of different aged-lines fanning out like a sunburst from the entrance to block 2, waiting patiently and chatting happily. Some schools do this all the time. It's popular in the newer schools where young peoples’ unquestioning compliance is highly valued. There’s never one solution in schools, though, which is why governments find them so infuriating to run. Safety and compliance are central, but so are questioning and individuality. You can prevent harm, but you can’t prescribe brilliance. Speaking of which.
One of the most irritating training sessions I ever sat through was from a person who billed himself as an iconoclast. He’d written a book that had its moment in the sun so we shelled out for a session. He began with a line-related expansive flinging of the arms. ‘If you imagine a continuum with Ken Robinson at one end, Michael Gove is at the other’. Oh dear. We were partial to Sir Ken, may he rest in peace, at Tallis, not just because of his TED talk (‘Do schools kill creativity?’) that everyone in the world watched, but because he talked sense that reached deeply into our history at Tallis. He wasn’t at one end of anyone’s line.
Robinson was a former teacher and distinguished education academic who finally ended up working for the Getty Foundation. He argued that children do not grow into artistic creativity but are educated out of it by school systems that focus on academic achievement and conformity instead of liberating imagination and initiative. He feared that ‘our education system has mined our minds in the way we strip-mined the earth for a particular commodity.’ He wanted a system that didn’t treat children as the same or try to ‘over-programme them’. He wanted all children to be able to to find their talents by being able to try things out at school.
Robinson wasn’t opposed to academic learning or a national curriculum and those who say he was are just wrong. He wanted a curriculum judged by different priorities with parity of esteem between core subjects and the arts. Tony Blair asked him to chair a National Advisory Committee on Creative and Cultural Education and the 1998 report ‘All Our Futures’ argues:
that no education system can be world-class without valuing and integrating creativity in teaching and learning, in the curriculum, in management and leadership and without linking this to promoting knowledge and understanding of cultural change and diversity.
Ken Robinson used Mick Fleetwood as an example in one of his books. Our Fleetwood Mac man was written off at school, distracted, unfocused, always thinking about something else – but what a legacy. Is there anyone over 40 who wouldn’t recognise Albatross, or whistle along to Rumours, if whistling were permitted?
Which reminded me of the Norman Rockwell picture of the Soviet schoolroom. Look at it carefully. The children are tidily uniformed. There’s an exhortation on the wall about ‘study and learn’ and everyone is focused except for the child looking out of the window. Is Rockwell just making an obvious cold war point about the crushing of individuality and the yearning of the human soul? Or is he saying something about a universal experience of children? About the child who’ll still think his own thoughts no matter what the classroom climate – and the teacher who recognises it?
Yet this picture illustrates much of what’s currently praised in secondary education: absolute conformity, even down to the level of all eyes ‘tracking the teacher’. That distracted thinker would be sanctioned in many schools, and his teacher would certainly be criticised by inspectors. But what is he thinking of? What memory, what experience of school does the picture bring back to you? (Ignore the bust of Lenin, though I did serve in a County Durham school with a bas-relief of Peter Lee on the hall wall who could easily have doubled for Lenin. I thought it was him until I got up close.)
We are constantly distracted by easy ways to fix education or loud ways to argue about it. Robinson wasn’t at one end of anyone’s continuum but wanted a way of combining the best in a good and lively system. Responding to the virus doesn’t meant that we start from scratch nationally, but it doesn’t mean that we pretend nothing’s happened. Learning lines at Tallis doesn’t mean that we’ll always do it – but we might learn something new that helps us. Both of my chaps are undoubtedly right.
I followed a matching pair of year 10s along an orderly and well-spaced-out corridor. As they went outside I’m certain that one said to the other ‘my mask smells of roman numerals’. If he did, what wonderful poetry and maths awaits us in the future?