There was a chap from one of the thinktanks beside me. He must have known a bit about the research but would only commit himself to saying that we’ll get and keep teachers if we pay them more. Duh. The Pundit’s Code required me to say ‘yes, obvs [but we’re here for 45 minutes] so here’s a few other thoughts’. On reflection, perhaps we should have, hall and all, sat in silence for the duration in protest. Maybe we should all refuse to join in any further discussion until the tenners start rolling back in? I’m not sure the government care enough about our opinion to make that a stance worth taking.
So I held forth on subject-based CPD, attempting honest and open leadership, communication, humane relationships, reliable systems and a bit of give and take. Most of all, on treating teachers like the adults they are and allowing the respect due to their scholarship. Which leads me inexorably back to the time and money trope you’ve had before. Cash-strapped institutions who spend most of their (public) money on people are exhorted to sweat their assets, as another pundit coarsely put it. If you increase productivity, you need fewer people so you save money.
The problem with learning, from teaching reception number bonds to ten, through algebra and poetry to finding a cure for Alzheimer’s, is that real productivity depends on the immeasurable and imponderable. Educators of all kinds need time to think, research and experiment. It's hard to know how many of the things we do in school actually improve children’s learning, as opposed to their examinable knowledge. We don’t test them in their mid-twenties or forties to see how much of it has stuck and what practical use it’s been, to prosperity or happiness of the individual or society.
On my way to the tube I was mildly inconvenienced by two school parties. One was a primary school, charmingly arranging themselves up an escalator with great pleasure. The other was a group of – I reckon – year nines in the middle of town. They were enjoying a reasonably orderly saunter despite the clipboard chap at the back shepherding them exasperatedly, like a six foot border collie in a mountain jacket. ‘Get a move on, will you? We haven’t got all day, we’ll be late.’ I picture the politicians in the Department a bit like that, obsessed with their legacy, hassling schools into frenetic, misguided priorities. Or perhaps that shows my age: nine Secretaries of State in nine years doesn’t suggest they’re remotely bothered.
Which take me back to number one on the list of blogs I imposed on you last time. It’s the vision for an education system that we lack. We have mechanisms and expectations. We even have processes and evaluations, but they’re all feeble because we don’t know what we want. Coughing loudly and shouting ‘look over there instead’ we devise cheap ways of measuring the blindingly obvious without managing to turn our heads towards the bigger, difficult and expensive questions.
American philosopher Michael Sandel has been kindly reading me his book Justice. He develops an argument about the difference between what’s right and what’s good, the impossibility of neutrality in deciding big issues and the importance of narrative in the choices people make. I thought about it all the way home and much of the night. Outcomes-focused judgements about schools are based on what’s right for children inside this funding envelope, and, perhaps, their right to an education that sets them on the path to adult life in this society. But it's not about what constitutes a good education. That would be a vast and difficult discussion leading to education costs of a different dimension to the current provision. If we really wanted schools to be models for a better society and centres of learning and human development we’d never run them like we do. Schools would be palaces, and expert teachers, trained for years, paid hugely more than we do now.
You’d expect me to have been fascinated by the Michaela prayer controversy which is really interesting for precisely the reasons above. Banning religion in school is superficially very attractive. Schools that are not faith-based, like society, are expected to be neutral about religion. In order to give religions equal status, its way easier to ban ‘em all than to actually tussle with them. But religion is part of the human experience and children go through phases of faith development. A religious teenager may cling to the identity that religion offers as part of adolescent self-understanding. Schools need to be aware of that and try to help them think through their beliefs, in the context of what it takes to build a better world.
Prayer needs to be facilitated and supervised so that thinking and developing process can happen in the safe space that is school, not driven underground, or out in the yard, or forced into oppositional demonstration. Doing prayer properly in a secular school takes time, money and sustained thought. It can go wrong in many different ways, but so can maths. Enabling young people to think about their deepest motivations is part of school. We can’t get away with banning whatever is inconvenient and skating furiously over thin ice, like the Austerlitz scene in the new Napoleon film. It doesn’t end well.
We need to work hard, collectively, on what constitutes a good education. Without vision the people perish and children are particularly badly served. How can we describe what we value and hope for in the swirling joy of schools? How can we tell the story so that it is impossible for a civilised nation not to fund it properly? How can we actually understand the world, and change it for the better?
I’m not done with this. So much for the tidy list!