Tim Harford was writing about ethics, or more particularly about metacognition versus virtue in the FT last Saturday (don’t worry, this’ll get scrappier soon). Metacognition, teaching people how to think is next to impossible to define, so what about looking at what kind of people emerge from education? How have their temperaments and virtues benefitted from years of investment? Harford suggests love of truth, honesty about one’s failings, fair-mindedness, humility and a willingness to seek help, perseverance, courage, good listening, perspective-taking, empathy and wisdom make for better learners. Others added the ability to see connections and a sense of humour, humanity and getting-stuff-done-ness. Persuasiveness (hmmm). Curiosity.
One of Harford’s correspondents objected, saying it wasn’t her place to teach students how to be good people. But if not, who? He ends the piece, having admirably made not one reference to the PM, with ‘And if we don’t know who will teach those virtues or how to teach them, that explains a lot about the world in which we now live’.
You heard it here first. We‘re queasy about the language of virtue, and the churches don’t fill the space any more, so who teaches young people how to live a good life? Obviously: we do. Teachers and parents, schools. Unfortunately, the cheaply functionalist, any-means-necessary, measure-by-results, structure-not-quality mechanisms of our system drown the virtuous route: sustained endeavour, curiosity, substance, breadth, depth, kindness and selflessness.
Did the Times Education Commission report, published this week to deafening fanfares, dive into this, I hear you cry? Not so much. Their twelve-point, forty-five recommendation plan is interesting. There is much collusion with government policy hidden in the very small print, such as the outrageous ‘elite sixth forms’ cuckooed into disadvantaged areas, for example. Some of the narrative smacks of poverty tourism and paternalism such as ‘private schools understand all too well that there must be more to education than knowledge’. The ‘teachers are heroes’ damaging trope is given another run out – heroes don’t need paying properly, of course – as is the inevitable Birbalsingh. While any document using ‘superhead’ should be flung across the room, the commitment to broad, deep and memorable educational experiences appears to be real. It would be churlish not to quote the first two recommendations, a 15-year strategy for education run by an independent body, and an end to three-year funding cycles. Oh yes.
The other report this week is from the Rethinking Assessment group, a coalition of educators trying to reframe the way we assess schooling and what children know. There’s much to be said for this. Perhaps the combination of the two might dislodge something?
What’s not included, in either, is a broad, deep or even memorable critique of our divided society, and the effects of cynicism, slovenliness and playing it for laughs in public life on our children. Both reports have a serious tone, but the Department is congenitally obsessed with structural reform, and the PM doesn’t seem to have time to care about anything other than continuing to be PM against the odds. I’m not holding my breath.
But I write this at lunchtime on the hottest day of the year and, despite some rather coarse inter-student shouting I can hear through my open window, all are cheerful. We got through year 9 Sports Day with a gentle breeze before someone turned the gas up, and when I held the block 4 bridge door open for the hordes almost every single one of them said ‘thank you’ or asked me how I was. One even blessed me from under a straw hat as she scuttled past determinedly. Three teacher trainees called in to say goodbye at the end of their placements, the GCSE Art moderator has been and gone and, fabulously, among the exams of the day have been Persian and Astronomy. Wouldn’t it be great if Caspar, Melchior and Balthazar were among the candidates?
We had Tim Oates in school this week, talking about the long-term educational effects of the pandemic and the things we should focus on. It was good to have him in in the flesh: we started the year thinking about his insights, in September. And we’ll return to it this September, because in the end, these children in this place haven’t time to wait for the tanker to turn round, even if the order is sent down from the bridge. We have to look to our own skills in teaching and questioning, reading and really thinking hard about the concepts that unlock doors in children’s brains and make them yearn to find out more. We need to put our learning virtues to work.
Good people, good learning, good classrooms, good schools. If the PM can’t find a replacement for Lord Geidt he doesn’t need to scrap the post. Lots of us could do it. At your service, matey.