It's conference season again in the university calendar, so this week I am off to take part in a symposium about the 'datafication' of English education. This is something that concerns me not only as a teacher and researcher, but also as a grandparent.
As my colleagues argue in their blog, the current cultural drift in the English state education system has resulted in the construction of children, my grandsons included, as 'abilities machines' whose most important feature has become their assessment score input to the statistical calculations that will be used to evaluate the school, rather than young human beings requiring nurture as they move through their developmental journey. From this starting point, we enter a 'through looking glass' situation in which the school no longer exists to serve the pupil; the pupil exists to serve the school. The alarming effects emanating from this highly dysfunctional culture can be illustrated by some seemingly unconnected events which have recently hit the headlines, causing concern to parents and grandparents nationwide.
Firstly, reports of the emergence of 'seclusion rooms' in primary schools, used to confine children as young as five have been gradually seeping into the media. Examples include a school in Bedfordshire in which a whistleblower reported 'the most vulnerable children... carried kicking and screaming' to be locked into 'a cupboard' and a school in Suffolk where very young children were locked unaccompanied into a 2 x 1.5 metre room in which they could not be visually observed. Then, at the other end of the statutory education system, a series of articles in the national press have disclosed that 'a number of schools' have a policy of requiring 17 year olds to leave without sitting their A levels if their AS or 'mock' grades fall below an A/B, which it turns out, is potentially unlawful. Meanwhile, children of all ages with special needs conditions that give rise to behaviour problems have been stealthily excluded and enrolled in 'alternative' and potentially illegal settings.
Laura McInerney, tapping into the 'looking glass world' analogy, suggests that the situation is sufficiently bizarre to provide a basis for dark comedy: 'A stressed headteacher, seeking to improve the school's pass rate, rounds up the worst pupils, slings them in a wheelie bin and trundles them towards a dustbin van'. Whilst this might be amusing as fiction, the fact that in reality those who educate our children and grandchildren think that it is acceptable to lock them up alone in a cupboard during the early childhood years, or contrive to permanently exclude them from school altogether because they have inconvenient additional needs, or have achieved disappointing grades should trigger a national pause for contemplation. What type of nation have we become?
The short answer is of course one in which a dominant "neoliberal" philosophy defines human beings as only of value to the extent that they are able to generate 'capital'. Those who suffer most under such a regime are the most vulnerable in society, those who are too old or too young to independently earn and consume, or who need additional support. Is it therefore really surprising that in such an environment, schools and other care and education settings have been reconstructed to resemble private businesses that subsequently seek to exclude those 'clients' who might reduce the institution's rating in the national league tables? Or that such care and education institutions have become 'cash cows' in which 'executive managers' receive inflated salaries and engage in what the BBC terms 'dubious business relationships'?
We have created a hall of distorted mirrors in which data and profit has become more important than people, hence like Lewis Carroll's Alice, the resulting illusions consequently entice us to move in poorly judged directions. Many of the adults who bear the responsibility for contriving to exclude children in various ways once they have been constructed as problematic data points must surely be parents, grandparents, aunts and uncles themselves. At the dawn of the modern education era, nursery pioneer Margaret McMillan ran her award winning clinic, school and nursery school from the foundation of her motto 'treat each child as though he were your own'. If we could hit the 'reset' button on current state education and care practices with this mantra at its core, perhaps we could start to move in more humane directions.