Summer term: and the teaching is not easy

It never fails to depress me just how much curriculum time goes out of the window in the second half of the summer term. This yearly saga is not simply the inevitable result of the students (not to mention the staff) being frankly desperate to begin their summer holidays; the atmosphere is facilitated – even promoted – by our school systems and by the people who organise them. Boy, do we make life difficult for ourselves in the summer term.

The run-down to the summer holiday has always been punctuated by events that disrupt the calendar. Year 10 Work Experience, that hilarious misnomer “curriculum week”, sports day, reward events and summer camps of various guises; one of my clients talked about an ominous-sounding “bush week” – something I am very glad to say I have never been forced to endure in my career. To some extent, these events in themselves send a message to students that we’re in summer festival mode and it’s time to wind down. Yet some of them (perhaps – dare I say it – even the bush week) have unquestionable value and I acknowledge that they have to happen sometime. So why not now?

One of the things I have thought about the most in my final year at the chalkface is the messaging we send out to our students: not just in what we say but in what we do. There is much talk about how important it is to model good behaviour, to show students what “good” looks like by demonstrating excellence, good manners and commitment at all times. So what message are we sending them, do we think, when things start winding down three weeks prior to the end of term? Three weeks is around 8% of the curriculum time we have with them. That’s 8% of curriculum time that is so disrupted that the only way to manage it as a classroom teacher is basically to write it off; I’ve always said that if you haven’t finished the overwhelming majority of what you need to teach by May half term then you’re going to struggle to finish it at all, as the second half of the summer term is a total bun-fight. My worry, however, is that this messaging leads to one inevitable conclusion for our students: that the curriculum doesn’t really matter that much after all.

Beyond the realities of curriculum time, we also create quite a problem for ourselves when it comes to behaviour. Children thrive on routines and boundaries and when those routines and boundaries become disrupted then behaviour gets worse. We all know this. Yet in some schools, just one day’s hot weather apparently means that students can’t possibly wear their (summer) uniform and are instead allowed to attend school in their PE kit – a concession that puzzles me given that at least one of the purposes of school is to prepare them for adult working life; last time I checked, most employers don’t allow their workforce to come into the office in a pair of loose-fitting boxers just because the thermometer has hit 30 degrees for a day or two. By all means, encourage students to remove blazers, loosen ties, remove garters or adjust whatever other crazy form of attire the school has chosen as its marker; this would happen in most adult settings – even the most formal – in extreme weather conditions. However, if schools choose to have a uniform (and most schools do) then the messaging has to be that the wearing of that uniform not only matters but matters a great deal. Why? Because otherwise the subliminal message that you’re sending out is this: we have rules, but they don’t always get enforced and so in the grand scheme of things they don’t actually matter.

Incidentally, uniform and how it is worn is something I have completely changed my mind about over the years. When I first entered the profession I saw no no reason whatsoever to sanction students for not tucking in their shirts or doing up their ties. “What does it matter?” I thought. “I want them to be thinking about the learning, not fussing about their clothes.” Correcting a child’s uniform seemed to me to be part of the gradgrindian system that I – a liberal educationalist- was dead set against. Wrong. Wrong. Wrong. I now believe that if we are in the business of preparing young people for all walks of life then that applies to everything: the fact that they may have to dress and act a certain way in certain circumstances, the fact that institutions have rules that they will be expected to respect if they want to be part that institution (their choice either way – that’s part of the gift we impart to them). Beyond this, and perhaps even more crucially, it simply isn’t fair to expect children to understand that adults mean what they say but only in certain circumstances; that some rules matter but others don’t; that I mean what I say when I tell students not to talk over each other, or not to run in the corridors, but not when I ask them to correct their uniform. My view would be that if you can’t get on board with being strict on uniform then get rid of it.

This final summer in school has felt like the hardest. Schools have been under immense pressure to cram in all the activities that our students have missed out on in the last couple of years. We feel like we owe them and in many ways I believe that we do. Society owes a great debt to its youth, whose lives have been curtailed and controlled to a degree that – in any normal circumstances – we would consider completely unacceptable. And not only that, they have been curtailed for the sake of the oldest and most vulnerable members of society. In all honesty I have been truly stunned at how they have taken it with such extraordinary good grace: we all owe them a great deal of gratitude. Yet – in my view – that debt is not paid by pandering to their every whim and by punching yet more holes in a curriculum that has already been eviscerated. Indeed no. We offer them that payback by being our most consistent, most loving, most insistent best. By believing that they can handle it.

Show me your best is now my mantra: for I believe that we can and should expect more of our young people: that they can do so much better than most adults expect them to do.

The constraints of religious schooling

My school was proudly old-fashioned. Questions were viewed with suspicion and contempt, especially in the context of religion. We were not allowed to study RE as a subject, since exposure to a variety of religious views would – we were told – have ‘confused’ us. Instead, we had Divinity with the School Chaplain: we read passages from the Bible and he explained them. Strangely, I seem to recall that he had a rational explanation for every single one of the miracles in the Gospels and when I look back now as an adult I am reasonabl convinced that he didn’t believe in God.

My parents were deliberately neutral in their stance and so I came to my religious schooling with a completely open mind – in many ways, an easy convert. I was profoundly respectful of what I assumed were the sincerely-held beliefs of those around me and I would bow my head during prayers. I was truly fascinated by the ritual of Chapel and knew all the traditional hymns; I can still sing most of them all the way through, much to my husband’s consternation; I can also recite the Creed, some of the Psalms, the Lord’s Prayer and several others.

While I would listen with interest during the Sermon, it took me a long time to realise that I was pretty much the only one doing so. On an increasing number of occasions I would find myself enraged by the message that we had been given in Chapel, or puzzled by the hypocrisy of our situation. If Jesus said to ‘sell all thou hast and give to the poor,’ what were we doing in an expensive boarding school? Did God honestly care how I performed in my exams – didn’t He have something more important to worry about? And why on earth did I have to pray for the Queen?! Ignored by the staff and ridiculed by my peers, it became clear to me that most of my peers neither listened to nor cared about the lessons that we were taught by the Reverend. Even he didn’t seem to care that much. Yet when I questioned the charade, I was bullied for it – by students and by some of the staff. Things were very different in those days.

Atheists and agnostics are often accused of being ‘angry’ and I guess it’s hard for committed believers to comprehend the unpleasant mix of condescension, prejudice and paranoia that some of us have faced, growing up in a society that tends to equate faith with morality. Soon after I started attending school, I went to a meeting that was announced for ‘all students who are not Christians.’ In my innocence, I failed to realise that this was a euphemistic way of gathering the tiny handful of Muslim students together so that their non-attendance at Chapel could be agreed. The Housemistress nearly fainted when I showed up, the only girl in the room without a headscarf. She asked me what on earth I was doing there, so I explained that I didn’t believe in God and was therefore not a Christian. She told me not to be so ridiculous, said that my views ‘didn’t count’ and sent me away. That was probably the first time that I felt really angry and it’s taken a good deal of growing up for me to let go of that anger. Happily, I have met so many people of faith in recent years who have been generous, forgiving, kind and open-minded that the feeling has largely passed.

Despite the pressure (or perhaps because of it – I was a rebellious child at heart), I became more and more convinced during my childhood that an unswerving acceptance of a bundle of ancient writings made very little sense. In addition, a school rife with bullying was a fine place to observe that religious beliefs have little to no effect on a person’s humanity. Over the years I watched some of the worst bullies in the school pass through their Confirmation ceremony, in which they agreed to ‘turn away from everything which was evil or sinful.’ Some of them became servers in Chapel. My distaste for the whole sham increased, and by the time I reached University I was thoroughly relieved to be away from it.

Yet given that we’re all a product of our experiences, I sometimes wonder what kind of person I would be had I not attended such an old-fashioned ‘faith’ school. I fully support the campaign against them, as in principle I believe that every child should have an education that is free in every sense – not least free from indoctrination and prejudice. Yet for me, my experiences shaped my convictions – and not in the way that the school had intended. Maybe I’m unusual, but if my story is anything to go by and you want to nurture an atheist, then I guess you proceed as follows: send them to a ‘faith’ school, ladle on plenty of hypocrisy and tell them not to ask any questions. The result may surprise you.

Image by Priscilla du Preez

This piece was first published in August 2014 in Humanist Life.

Quoting the Classical World

with apologies to Bernard Levin

If you cannot succeed in completing a task and declare it Sisyphean, you are quoting the classical world. If you have made a Herculean effort, you are quoting the classical world. If you’ve worked like a Trojan, wasted time whipping the sea and even then failed to have a eureka moment, you are quoting the classical world. If you have had the sword of Damocles hanging over you, feared the Greeks even when bearing gifts, won a Pyrrhic victory or secured a Carthaginian peace, crossed the Rubicon and declared that the die is cast because love conquers all and fortune favours the bold, if you have opened Pandora’s box or been invaded by a Trojan horse, been rich as Croesus or endured Spartan conditions, assumed that the poor want nothing but bread and circuses, claimed wisdom in knowing nothing, been caught out by your Achilles heel or troubled by your Oedipus complex, been on an odyssey, tried to clean the Augean stables or enjoyed a Platonic friendship then, carpe diem! mea culpa! to speak ad nauseam and in vino veritas, O tempora! O mores! You are quoting the classical world.

Marching Towards the Corporate

When did the world decide that the corporate model is the ideal template? The inexorable march towards business speak and a commercial style of operation appears to be infecting every aspect of our lives, from health care to education, from politics to the arts. Sometimes, it feels as if we’re all becoming a part of somebody else’s branding exercise.

Two years ago, my husband quit his engineering job, severing ties with a company he has been with for over ten years. There were several reasons behind his relatively sudden decision, but most of them relate to the increasing prevalence of what one might call “corporate bullshit”.

“Nobody helps each other out any more,” my husband said to me. Everyone’s time has to be logged on a spreadsheet; as a result, nobody is motivated to give their time for anything other than what will get a tick in the box. Engineers are under ludicrous pressure to provide “accurate estimates”, the oxymoron apparently lost on a management team that seem to have little to no understanding of what engineers actually do.

My father had the same experience, and I watched as his effervescent passion and technical brilliance were slowly eroded by the drip, drip, drip effect of timesheets; he worked for small-minded money men, faceless suits with no comprehension of the fact that high-quality engineering requires free-thinking, imagination and flair.

In education, where my own experience lies, a depressingly corporate tone is now the norm. The simplest of pedagogical principles are dressed up in the flowery language of over-sell, making everything sound more complicated than it needs to be. We don’t teach any more – we “cascade” and we “expedite”.

Managers spout a bewildering plethora of executive sound-bites and every school has a self-conscious “vision” for its future, shaped by the leadership team. I nearly lost it at one staff meeting in which a middle leader exhorted us to “facilitate those water-cooler moments” – by which he meant “talk to each other in the staffroom”. I think.

But the problem is not just the meaningless turns of phrase that drive us all to distraction in the workplace and provide endless fodder for the ever-brilliant team of satirists at Modern Toss – it’s far more serious than that. The corporate world is infiltrating the very heart of what we stand for. As someone who deliberately chose a career path away from the treadmill of commercialism, I am disquieted by the subtle shift in culture.

Recently, I received a conference invitation from a company called Osiris, an independent training provider for teachers. So enraged was I by its contents that I tore up the leaflet in a manner reminiscent of the mythical dismembering of Osiris himself. Around half an hour later, I decided that a much more productive response would be to fish the offending item out of the bin, piece it back together and vent my spleen in writing.

The conference, to be held in March 2016, is on “building character” in students. It seems that the government has a “new model for character development” as part of the “2016 national agenda for character education.”

Any sane person should already be feeling queasy.

To help us with this terrific new framework (the details of which I simply cannot wait to hear), the flyer explained that the conference will furnish its delegates with the following:

  1. A new model of character development for your school and individual pupils. (Give that some thought for a few seconds and tell me it isn’t nonsense).
  2. Strategies to identify and audit character. (Yes, you read that right: identify and audit character. I can’t wait to see the spreadsheet they’ve created – or maybe it’s a whole new piece of software? Either way, I’m excited).
  3. Clarity over which character traits your school should focus on. (Personally, I will be arguing for wantonness and dissipation).
  4. Ideas to build character in lessons, across the school and outside of school. (If anyone mentions paintballing or trust exercises, I will not be responsible for my actions).

The leaflet states that delegates will also hear from an Ofsted representative on how character will be inspected in 2016 (can you even imagine?) plus views shared by a representative from everybody’s favourite global brand: McDonalds. Your guess is as good as mine as to why he is invited.

So this is the situation in which we find ourselves: spreadsheets for auditing our children’s very character development, driven by bureaucrats with about as much personality as a dampened sponge.

There is only one response, and it lies in resistance.

I will not do it. I will not even discuss it. As Head of Citizenship in an excellent state school, I will not audit the characters of our students, and if the government or our management team want it done, they can go find some other mug with no morals and a shaky sense of self.

If this is the future, I may become a hermit.

This piece was first published in December 2015 in Quillette Magazine under the title: Schools proposing to audit pupils’ characters should mind their own business.