Some of my best friends are teachers; gifted, experienced practitioners who have dedicated their lives to nurturing and curating the slow unfurling of learning in early minds. Every day they have the chance to perform miracles and transform a child's future and understanding of the world. As Socrates reminded us all those years ago "a mind is not simply a vessel to be filled, but a fire to be kindled." It takes extraordinary skill to be a professional fire starter these days.
In talking to these friends over the years, I have started to listen to what teachers are not saying as much as to what they are. I've heard about the pressures of measuring progress, school league tables, and the constant juggling of priorities. Only if I am lucky, will these friends actually mention the children. "The kids are the easy part," an experienced secondary teacher told me last month, "I wouldn't mind if it was just about the children. In my last school they were becoming just numbers." This superb teacher now works in the Alternative Education sector inspiring students who have become "pushed out" of today's mainstream schooling.
Another friend, who until recently was a Deputy Head and pioneered a progressive art department within a large secondary school, put it more bluntly. "I left what was becoming a high-accountability, low-trust culture which was eroding my passion for inspiring young creative minds. Teachers understand the importance of being measured, but surely there are more intelligent ways to recognise the individual worth of every pupil?" He now heads the education work for a strategic international arts organisation.
Of course it's easy to imagine that because we once attended school, or even have children currently at school, we know what is taking place within education and are able to empathise and understand the pressures on teachers, let alone grasp the wider philosophical purpose of schooling today. Don't take my word for it; even the Government's influential Select Committee on Education is currently undertaking an inquiry and collecting evidence about the very purpose of education. Not an easy task: It's a bit like interrupting a live football match and asking the referee to change the size of the goals at either end, midway through. Sometimes it feels as if the education ball has been kicked so hard by those not on the actual pitch it no longer even resembles a football.
Perhaps Ed Balls, a previous Government Minister for Education and now Chairman of Norwich City Football Club, would know how to stop the game, re-organise the rules and keep the players and supporters happy, whilst avoiding the relegation zone.
Bill Shankly's, famous quote that "Football is not a matter of life and death, it is much more important than that," brings a smile to a true football fan, but could the same be said if we replaced the word 'Football' with 'Education'. Perhaps football is beginning to have an undue influence on our education system. New outside financial backers, an obsession with a club's position in a league table, managers sacked on the whim of trophy-obsessed owners? I personally know of a number of experienced senior teachers forced out of the schools they once loved, because the 'owners' of their recently converted Academies have not been able to conjure up the "miracle transformation" they promised and hide their corporate shame, through personal blame. The recent news that struggling schools which become academies are six times less likely to improve than those that remain under local authority, is revealing. It's good that this quantitative factual evidence is finally emerging, but for some of our best teachers this reality has come too late. I suspect Sir Alex Ferguson could tell us something about giving organisations years to establish their ethos, culture and success. But alas, perhaps the quick win results culture of the football world, has indeed arrived in our schools.
Just before the Christmas break, the TES ran a lead story about a report from the University of Oxford claiming that in the 'Champions' League' table of education comparison, Britain and the US were among the worst for "teaching to the test." Interesting that there was a notable absence of this report in the mainstream media. As schools broke up and staff were exhausted, truly this was a season to bury bad news. No-one it seemed had the appetite to ask the question whether our "revision-driven learning" model of education in this country is actually good for all our children?
The report team gathered data from 25 of the wealthiest nations and recognised that among competitive countries which had higher economic inequality and where exam results matter "far more," knowledge gained through cramming for exams does not appear to be retained by pupils two years later. Of course regular testing helps reinforce and embed learning, but this report seems to be claiming that much of learning crammed ahead of exams is superficial and doesn't feel relevant for many children. I see this first hand with one of my own teenage children, who is a great social learner but really struggles with exams. He has just been summoned to go back into his school today to improve his exam technique, something which understandably feels like a punishment to him, while all his mates are still on holiday.
Perhaps I should download Gojimo for him, which in the same week of this report, was revealed as the fastest selling education app. Ironically invented by a 17 year old college drop-out to help other students revise for exams. It's so popular pupils are now demanding that the quizzes should remain free, leaving the developer the only option to target parents with a premium version. Perhaps he's right, this model of learning comes at a cost and it's not just parents, but the whole of society who are in danger of paying the price.
Indeed, Professor Dorling, the author of the Oxford Report, reflecting on the inequality and lack of social mobility in the UK, says: "In more competitive societies, such as the US and UK, exam results matter far more. So the pressure from parents and from schools to get children a C grade rather than a D, or an A* rather than an A is very large. In these countries people try to maximise exam results because young people are entering a labour market where they are going to be paid enormous differences between the minimum wage and the top end." He goes on, "If we had a situation like Japan, where the most disadvantaged people are paid twice as much (as the UK) and you can actually live off a job as a cleaner, parents wouldn't be so worried about exam results."
Is not a purpose of education, to prepare students for the changing world of work so that they feel valued and able to engage in life-long learning and be happy in whatever they can and choose to do? The Facework project which the Inclusion Trust has co-designed with pushed out young people is beginning to support schools in introducing topics which are hard to measure, such as character, positive attitudes and employment intelligences, but sadly many schools have very little band-width to introduce this vital soft skills training into the curriculum.
So what does all this tell us about education and the challenges teachers face? Are schools, like football clubs, only to be measured on how well they perform in league tables? Of course not. Teachers work in schools where austerity has a face and where children are more than just customers. In an average classroom, teachers will be working with 9 of their children who are living in poverty, they will have children who constantly push the boundaries because these are the only places they feel safe. Today's teachers have to differentiate constantly for children with undiagnosed special needs, make choices on how best to support parents who have no recourse to public funding. This is the work these "special ones" are increasingly undertaking on the pitch of learning. This nurturing and social glue is as important a purpose of education as grades and league table trophies. Just because the behaviours may be more complex to codify, categorise and assess and harder to manage, doesn't mean they are not vital. Surely we should be trying to meaure things which are of value not just what is easy such as maths. As Albert Einstein said, "Not everything that counts can be counted, and not everything that can be counted, counts."