THE BLOG

Toxic Education

23/07/2014 15:15 BST | Updated 21/09/2014 10:59 BST

As the commentary continues about Mr Gove's 'reshuffle' I notice the plethora of references paid to his toxic influence. The word toxic conjures up images of noxious odours, poisonous fumes and the need for oxygen masks to protect against lethal contamination. Many teachers would suggest this is an apt metaphor. Whatever the truth behind Mr Gove's tenure at the Department for Education, the public perception of him seems to be one of venomous attacks on earnest teachers and their choice of creative teaching (Mr Men spring to mind); of disregard for genuine dialogue with experienced teaching professionals; and of contaminated thinking that boldly pursued restructuring curriculum content regardless of limited knowledge.

There is no need for me to pass further comment on Mr Gove's departure as so many opinions have already been aired, including Francis Gilbert's superb article It's the Blob wot won it 20.07.14.

I feel it is far more important to address the bigger picture. Firstly, I have to believe that Michael Gove's intention was to improve the education system. The key is that his focus seemed to be on the system, not necessarily on the children and people learning and teaching within it. I am saddened that his obvious passion and zeal led to chaos and fuelled toxic exchange.

I began teaching to make a positive difference. I wanted to enhance the esteem, confidence, creativity and wellbeing of each young person I taught both in the short and long term - whether they liked my subject or not. But, the system does not readily support the teacher or the learner these days. The main culprit is not the curriculum content or assessment design or even the management style. It's actually the lack of space and time within the structure that causes so much of the stress and disharmony.

Education toxicity swells as basic human needs are left unattended in the system: the need for peace and quiet (not punitive silence, but rather mindful silence); the need for fresh air and connection with nature; the need for nourishment and exercise; and, of course, the need for positive relationships, connection and affinity. I'm not talking about a utopian schooling system where everyone has the opportunity to pray, meditate or contemplate every morning before lessons commence; or have the opportunity to practise yoga, Qi Gong or Tai Chi during the school day (all of which would be greatly beneficial for personal health and improving learning). No, I'm talking about simplifying the system to reduce the chances of toxicity permeating through a school.

Teachers are warmly remembered and revered not because they clarified circle theorems or demystified Shakespeare, but rather because they brought humour, kindness, inspiration and encouragement into the equation. I believe their non-toxic approach to learning, through trust, co-operation and establishing a safe learning environment, is the basis for achievement and academic success.

When teachers are rushing to get to their next lesson, there is no time to reflect on teaching or behaviour management; when children forgo their lunch so they can play football because they have so little sport in their timetable; when senior leaders are so pressured they cannot afford to have an open door policy with their staff - this is when schools turn toxic and dissatisfaction breeds.

The system needs to stop adding and start subtracting. Education does not need more edicts, it needs more space. Head Teachers need more space to assess the unique needs of their school community; more space for dialogue with their staff and more space to listen to their beliefs, passions and dreams for their school. Teachers need more space to breathe; space to spend time with their students; space to develop innovative lessons and space to reflect on best practice. And students need more space to play, connect with their imagination and explore their worlds - both internal and external.

When children and young people no longer connect with their imagination, no longer have time to play and are so disillusioned that they no longer believe their dreams are worth pursuing - that is toxic education.

When teachers are so exhausted trying to keep up with the latest policy changes, when they are so pressured to hit unrealistic targets that they have no time to have a laugh and a joke with their students - that is toxic education.

When senior leaders are so time starved they don't socialise with their friends, watch their own children receive an award or romance their partner - that is toxic education.

Healthy education is about human growth, development and life-long learning. If we cannot teach our children that living, truly living, and positively flourishing is equally as important, if not more so, than getting those grades, then we might as well lock the school gates now.