Who educates the educators?

Last week* your man Cameron said that we should be better at standing up for British values. He said this alongside his critique of Muslim women for not learning English and integrating, and of Muslim men for controlling them. His plan, then, was to ‘help’ more Muslim women learn English (as if Muslim was now a language) and join in more, thus freeing them from the control of their men.

Racism aside, I thought then how odd it was that your man Cameron only spoke to one side of the problem. He described three elements: the Muslim men too controlling, the Muslim women too meek, the indigenous of both sexes (the “we”) who don’t stand up enough for British values. So, three sides of a problem to address, and three education programs aimed at each side of the coin: one to help Muslim women learn English, another to help Muslim men be less controlling, and a third to help the indigenous population learn how to explain and share their beliefs.

No. No that didn’t happen. Only one of the three: the Muslim women one.

Sexism and racism aside, though, I kept my ire to myself, because, well, what’s the point of another rant? Obviously the establishment are sexist and racist and interested in furthering their own ends and keeping the status quo. I can’t change that.

But this morning I turned on the radio to stories of a rising number of referrals made to Channel (part of the Prevent anti-radicalisation scheme) by primary teachers. One was referred because they had asked “repeatedly” for a prayer room, and another because they had used the term “eco-terrorism” in class. What better illustration could there be of the desperate need to teach the deafeningly silent majority how to engage with the Other, than these examples of the ignorant and fearful indigenous?

Which is not to say that we shouldn’t be looking at the other side too, or that radicalisation isn’t a real, scary thing that needs to be addressed. There is a problem with the radicalisation and the terrorism and that. We all know this. It’s pumped into our faces all the time. It’s real. It’s scary, if you’re that way inclined. But the presentation in politics and the media and everywhere is of a one-sided problem, located firmly with the Other, not with the ‘us’. The problem lies with the visitor not the host.

But radicalistaion as a concept only makes sense as something relational: the radical is radical precisely because of its relationship to a perceived norm. And by definition every relationship has (at least) two sides. Trying to to sort out a relationship from one side is nearly always doomed to fail. By ignoring the potential for action from the ‘us’ side of the relationship, Dave exempts ‘us’ from the problem. This is awful for the Muslim population, as they are demonised and ostracised. But it is also awful for the ‘us’, as we don’t get to be wrong, and don’t get to learn. We lose out too.

What might have been different? I think we British (and particularly we British middle class) have a particular problem, fostered through the loss of empire, with communicating positively about ourselves and our beliefs and traditions and cultures. We’re afraid of this because it feels too red-top, and so we bury our self-image where it can fester and putrefy into rancour and unjustified resentment. A well-designed and sensitive program exploring with the indigenous public how we can better and more clearly share our beliefs would be a powerful corrective to the all-too-easy location of the problem in the Other. But it would also be a powerful way of helping us to get better at communicating about ourselves and our beliefs.

Maybe a good place to start would be the teachers, some of whom are (on both sides) are radicalising the next generation as we speak. For example, it is a radical view to hold that someone asking for a prayer room is a potential terrorist. It is a radical view to hold that anyone who does not belong to your religion deserves to be treated as sub-human. Both need to be addressed, but neither can be addressed in isolation. We’re all involved, and we all need to change.


* I wrote this ages ago – January 2016 I think – but didn’t publish it. I’m not sure why, but maybe I feared I was ranting too much at that point in time. In a way, though, it’s the same message I’ve tried to get across in what I wrote about Brexit. I’m nothing if not consistent. We, the liberal elite, are far too quiet and comfortable, and are becoming a real force of conservatism in our unwillingness to speak or to act.

Regrammarisation

Blah blah blah grammar schools blah blah social mobility blah blah blah regressive blah blah blah.

It’s stupid and it’s wrong and it’s probably evil. It underlines Theresa May’s incredible lack of credibility. It’s not wanted by anyone in the profession. It’s unnecessary. We all know this so there’s no point me saying it too. Let’s take it as read and move on to the next bit: what do we do?

Recently I wrote an article for Therapy Today about the way that counsellors are excluded (and exclude themselves) from the sources of knowledge and power – about the way that they are not allowed a say in what counselling means and how to measure it, despite being the people that do it. The same is true of teachers. In fact, it’s even worse. Teachers are part of a hyper-politicised profession that is politicked into such a frenzy of ill-informed froth by over-indulged shitbags that there is no space for the voices of the people doing the job. The education sector is led and defined by those who ignore the voices of teachers and children in favour of made up statistics, vested interests, and newspaper headlines.

As teachers we are used to this. We accept that we can have no voice in larger policy and so carve out little niches where our voices can be heard, both in our schools and online. We retreat as individuals and fall as individuals. Indeed, it was the inability of teachers (myself very much included) to break out of those niches and fight together that led me to leave full-time teaching.

During my teaching career there was plenty of bullshit which I and the vast majority of my colleagues disagreed with: OfSTED’s mission creep, Year 2 and Year 6 SATs, compulsory synthetic phonics, ever-expanding league tables, EYFS profile, free schools, the phonics screening check, Gove, 2-year-old testing, EYFS testing, attainment not progress, academies, scraping the new curriculum, flags, the list goes on. What did I do, throughout these? What did we do?

Generally, nothing. We moaned and griped and posted and shared and we even striked, but in terms of actual concrete action, nothing really. Well no, not nothing. Once, back in 2010, we boycotted SATs. I say ‘we’, I was teaching in Reception at that time, but I was cheering from downstairs. We took direct action and – for a very brief moment – made a difference. We, the people who knew what was happening in our schools to the children we taught, took control of what was happening to them, and refused to impose a cruel and pointless test.

It was amazing.

It didn’t last.

Before the year was out our unions had been persuaded not to boycott again in return for ‘a seat at the table’ when the new assessments were being planned. our unions folded and we followed them, receding quietly into the background and allowing control to pass back once more to the political footballers.

But it needn’t be that way. We’re used to thinking, as teachers, that we don’t have any power to make a change – that we need to look above us to the unions or the LA or the leadership team or the government. We’ve been drilled into thinking that we cannot (and do not have the right to) stand up for what we know, but we do.And more, we have a duty. If we cannot come together as a community of professionals over such an obviously odious and harmful proposal as the expansion of grammar schools then we don’t deserve to call ourselves caring professionals at all.

What kind of action can we take together?

Anything, everything! Posting on facebook and striking are fine, but they don’t do enough. We’ve posted and striked plenty, and yet every change in that long (and by no means exhaustive) list above was pushed through. Why not try something else, something more direct? Why not write a letter to the parents of the children you teach explaining why they need to put pressure on their MPs to vote down the plans – a personal, school-photocopied, unsanctioned letter? Why not collar parents in the playground and lecture them about the threat to their children? Why not devise a term’s worth of history lessons raising your class’ consciousness of the absurd system that existed up until the ’70s – get those who survived the class-segregation to speak to the next generation about what they might be facing? Why not organise community events in the school hall to spread the message to the wider population? Why not pickett and shame any school which does move towards re-grammarisation?

In truth I don’t know what to do. I spend very little time teaching now, and when I do it’s as a supply teacher, the least-heard of an inaudible profession, so I don’t have any great chalk-face ideas. But I do know it’s not enough to raise a cursory protest with a ‘like’ clicked here and a blog written there. We need to come together in solidarity with each other, and with the children we teach, and fight.

One last point, on the fight. Don’t, in all of this, get pulled into the argument about evidence or impact or standards. Don’t go along with the NUT’s typical ‘this is wrong because it’s ideological’, or ‘it’s wrong because the evidence doesn’t back it up’. There is no such thing as ideology-free education, just as there’s no ideology-free evidence.

No, argue your case from what matters: the child’s experience of their schooling. This grammar bullshit is not wrong because of evidence or political motivation, it’s wrong because it’s unfair and cruel. It’s wrong because it will consign a whole slice of children to the kind of impoverished schools you get in Kent today (and elsewhere in the ’50s), and another slice to the sense of entitlement which no child ought to be bought up into. It’s wrong because it excludes and divides. It’s wrong because it tells children that they are defined by their academic ability at 10. It’s wrong because it will further the culture of testing and measuring which treats children like so many cattle on a conveyor belt. It’s wrong because no-one who has children’s best interests at heart wants it to happen. No-one.

It’s wrong not because it’s done out of ideology, but because it’s done out of bad ideology. It’s your, my, our responsibility to stand up to it.

The other other one

I’ve not been posting here much recently because a lot of my energy has been spent on Teaching with Heart. I’ve not even been posting that much in the other one (my personal blog) as I don’t find myself taking so many photos now I’m not living alone.

I thought I’d put the link here to a post that I just wrote, which I would’ve put here were it not for the Teaching with Heart blog.  I like it, though I don’t edit as stringently there as I do here. There’s also some other teaching related posts which I like including this angry little number. Have a look.

I’ve also been working on an article based on the paper I presented at Keele back in the spring. It should be out shortly I’ll post it up here when it’s published.

The Problem with Facebook

Well, not really facebook, more: The Problem with Microblogging in the Context of Disempowered Public Services. But that’s not quite so catchy a title, is it.

I wrote these blogs about leaving teaching two years ago. In fact they were the things that started me blogging:

govestupid
Little Mickey Goggles, Part. 1

I read them for the first time the other day, and they made me cry. Mainly because reading them took me back to that time and place, and confronted me with how much of my identity was/is tied up with being/not-being a teacher. But also because they feel so horribly current. It doesn’t feel like anything has changed since then; in fact it feels like things have got worse. At least once a week my Facebook feed has a story in which someone is writing their own valedictory-defeat letter, or highlighting the ugly on-the-ground reality of primary education.

Michael-Gove-Secretary-of-007
Little Mickey Goggles, Part. 2

In terms of consciousness raising, these kinds of posts are great. Education is so politicised a subject that the voice of the teacher (and more importantly the child) are often unheard beneath the rabble of political posturing. The same is true of other public services: as an outsider I felt much better informed about the junior doctors’ strike after reading a few junior doctors’ facebook posts describing their work and beliefs.

Michael-Gove
Little Mickey Goggles, Part.3 

But there’s a problem with these posts too. Well, there’s lots of problems – not least that the only people who read them are people who already agree – but there’s one problem which troubled me two years back and still troubles me now: what happens next? What happens to this ground-level knowledge after its been shared?

Doubtless it has some degree of impact on public understanding of the profession, and this is a good thing. But what does it change in real terms? That is, what difference does it make to a child’s experience of education? In the majority of cases, very little indeed.

For the teacher it’s a welcome moment of catharsis as they express their negativity and argue back against the system which is failing our children. If they write well enough it’s also a moment – or a day of moments – of affirmation and support from their online community. But after those moments? By an large, that teacher either leaves the profession (as I did) and so changes nothing, or stays in the profession and, frustrated, buckles under once more.

Why is this? I wrote last week about the way that, as things stand, there is simply no room within the current system for ground-level, bottom-up knowledge to change anything. Imagine the teacher who, energised by the catharsis of negativity expressed, clearer in her beliefs, and bolstered by 37 likes and a few comments of support, returns to school the next day ready to fight. Imagine the way that, as soon as she dares to express her situated, lived knowledge as a challenge to the system, she is shut down and told to put up or shut up [I never understood that expression; shouldn’t it be put up and shut up?] Even in excellent, nurturing schools, she will find herself coming up once again against an unthinking, unhearing system in which her knowledge and beliefs are simply irrelevant.

The more I’ve thought about these valedictory posts, the more I’ve found myself becoming frustrated with them, and with myself as I read them. Something is missing in all of this: action. In fact, I fear this kind of communication may ultimately make change less likely.

How so? Well, it’s great to get the positive feedback and feel like you’re in a community of like-minded people with similar experiences and beliefs. But this is a type of community ill-suited to action: it is community as curated by facebook. Because this is a facebook community and because facebook (and the twitters and the rest) is designed to provide tiny little squirts of emotional nourishment before returning us to a dull resting state of passive acceptance, it does not reach out and spur on. Instead another post is offered to us to click through to. The emotional engagement is real – we feel the pain and perceive the injustice; we even click the emoji or write the message, but Ooh, LadBible has a video of a man doing a thing!

We have come to accept, through the facebook, that the correct course of action, on hearing of someone’s immense pain which connects deeply with our own, is to make a comment and move on. At a distance, and on a platform which encourages short squirts over long entanglements, there is no will to solidarity; to action. The teacher who returns to the real world of a school in which they may be one of the few rather than the many – in which the ‘likes’ of their colleagues fail to translate into little more than a concerned look as they pass in the corridor – this teacher learns to quiet their brave voice. The community they thought they found seems now unfathomably distant from the real world. That facebook community is not nearly solid enough to back them up if we do fight the good fight. Real community stands up and acts; facebook (and all of the rest of the internet) is all sat down and reacting.

The problem with posting about the stresses and distress is that all of that anger and angst gets channelled into a catharsis that ultimately leads nowhere. It damps us down and helps us realise that the only place your voice counts is online: in the real world you just get by with as little hassle as you can. We learn that we are allowed to express our voices in public – microblogging has made this more possible than ever before – but we learn too that our voices are only to be expressed in this most private of public spheres.

By blogging or posting or tweeting or whatever we learn habits which are hard to unlearn: it’s safe and cosy to externalise our anger in small, supportive virtual communities. But that is not where our anger belongs. It belongs out there, in the real world – in the world the children we are failing inhabit. It belongs in real communities, channelled creatively and in solidarity. I fear that won’t happen if we’re able to deal with our troubles in the most private of public arenas.

This morning I read the Guardian’s Secret Teacher column. In it, a teacher who is I think symptomatic of the new generation of teachers suggests that all of the negativity we read on facebook is counter-productive and that we should instead focus our energies on adjusting to the system in order that it has a little an impact on learners as possible. They’re right, I think that the negativity expressed on facebook posts has a tendency to spiral in unhelpful ways, but how sad that the only solution this teacher can imagine is to make piecemeal protective adjustments. The new generation of teachers don’t believe they can have a voice which can change, and, if they continue to build their communities around the facebooks and such, they will be right. The other option would be to stand up in solidarity with one another, and there’s only one way to do that: do it.

Feast/famine

Some of the things I’ve written recently have been very negative. Most of the things. Living alone and listening to two hours of news a day ferments a pitch of negativity that, if left unchecked, would fester and develop into sores. It needs an outlet – it needs lancing. Normally it’d be her indoors who’d get an earful, but she’s currently displaced. You’ve been my displaced partner, you guys. You’re welcome!

But like any displaced partner you don’t just want to hear me whinge when I get home, so I thought I’d try to say something positive about what is good. It’s harder and scarier than saying something negative, but taking risks is the whole point of being in a relationship isn’t it. Isn’t it?

Anyway, I was also impelled to write this by seeing a therapist again. I’m seeing a therapist again you guys! Not because I’m in a particularly bad state at present – I’m cool – but because the times in my life that I’ve seen a therapist are times in which I’ve lived better and more intensely. I’d not want to see a therapist all the time because, well, money. And shame/self-respect. But therapy with the right person at the right time is ace. The right person at present is a chap who goes in for a bit of the psychosynthesis.

Psychosynthesis?

Sounds like some hypno-hippie-hipster pseudo-scientific bullshit right? It’s not, I don’t think. Maybe it is – I don’t know a lot about it (which is one of the reasons I like it), but I do know that, unlike most flavours of therapy, psychosynthesis seems pretty agnostic in its view of the person. Instead of trying to benevolently manipulate the client into agreement with their true state, it encourages them to make sense of themselves, often through a series of internal characters called subpersonalities or voices. These might be the much-maligned inner child who Freud was so interested in fiddling with, or they may be character-traits which emerge in certain situations, or relationship roles, or imagined future selves, or whatever. Unlike many of the other flavours of therapy there’s no prefigured plan about which voices each person should have. It’s creative and exciting and scary, and allows you – sorry, me – to explore and create with a sense of freedom and playfulness, instead of a fixation on uncovering underlying causes (psychoanalysis), becoming more pro-social (CBT, TA, other acronyms) or on polishing a turd (person-centred).

One of the things that has emerged for me in the course of therapy is the difference between those of my internal voices that speak from a place of feast, and those which speak from a place of famine [I think this distinction comes from the book ‘The Gift‘, by Lewis Hyde, but I’m not sure]. Engaging with them has been fascinating personally, but has also thrown an interesting light on public life – especially on those aspects which make me so angry and negative.

Famine

The voices which speak from a place of famine are those concerned with conservation, preservation and safety. They’re voices dominated by the past and the future: they have learnt the hard way and don’t won’t be bitten twice. They stockpile like a prepper, and are just about as likeable. They’re the voices which whine and wheedle: “Are you sure you’ve got enough strength for that?” or “What if you let him down – it’d be awful to promise something you couldn’t follow through on,” or “You need to be sure you’ve got this right, why don’t you check it again; much better you find the error before anyone else has the chance. In fact, it’s probably better no-one gets to see this at all”.

The voices of famine are afraid of overcommitting and will only take the most calculated and justifiable of risks. They don’t trust themselves very far, and they trust others even less: everything external will potentially let them down, so they seek to gather as much as possible inside themselves, and cut off from anything which can’t be consumed or controlled. And if the world must be engaged with, then it should be engaged with on the safest possible terms: scepticism, atomism, and safety-in-numbers-evidence.

Feast

The voices which speak from a place of feasting are – in me – rarer, but they are vital. They are enthusiastic, generous and profligate; they spend and give and trust recklessly in both themselves and the world. They speak from a place of strength but also vulnerability: in their confidence they expose themselves, consuming and enjoying and thereby making themselves less prepared. The feast can be enjoyed only because the past has been forgotten (ignored) and because the future is a place of hope and trust rather than fear. These voices sing “Expand, make connections with others; they won’t let you down,” and “Make yourself vulnerable: you’ll be held”, and “Believe, why not? You can change later.”

Voices which speak from a place of feast seek to expand, but not in order to control or make safe: their aim is to experience, now, what is good and to experience more of it. These voices are happy with science and evidence, but are not constrained by it as they have faith in something better, and are not tied to the past. They make sense of the world by immediate judgements rather than reasoned argument – aesthetics and virtue predominate: ‘how does it taste’ rather than ‘how many calories’; ‘is it the right thing to do’ rather than ‘can I get away with it’; ‘how am I moved’ rather than ‘what does my friend think’.

What has this got to do with the news and stuff? 

The more I’ve got angry about the flacid paucity of public debate about, for example, the EU referendum, academies, tax prickery, etc., the clearer it has become to me that the only voices with which we permit ourselves to speak, in public, are voices of famine.

Take, for example, the queen of the sciences – the voice to which all other voices much defer, in contemporary debate – economics. Economics is the voice of famine in its purest form: it posits nothing outside of itself, and aims to control by understanding. Anything which exists outside of economics is either irrelevant or reduced to itself. In the EU referendum debate, for example, all of the argument on both sides have been economic-based. No feast voice has been confident enough to stand up with an alternative. Can you imagine a pro-EU politician saying, as I believe they should:”the economic arguments are irrelevant: what matters is something bigger – a principle of shared humanity and generosity. The fact that we’re giving 151 million pounds or whatever a week to nations who are poorer than us is a good thing. We should be giving more”. It just wouldn’t happen.

And this is part of the power of the famine voices – both on a personal and political level – they’re inherently reasonable, and they’re right. You shouldn’t take a risk; there’s nothing to justify it. Because they are, by definition, reasonable and based on the best evidence, they cannot but win if engaged with on their own terms. Even when proved to be absolutely useless, they still win out. It hasn’t gone uncommented upon that very few economists predicted the whole global financial schermozzle, but public debate is dominated now more than ever by the economist. Just like someone suffering from OCD, we may not like the tools we have which keep us safe, and they may limit our lives severely, but they’re the only safety we know.

Similarly, if you listen to people in the 50s talk about their hopes for the future, they talk about 3-day-weeks and enjoying the present tense of leisure time and exploration and creativity and relaxation. Instead (and despite living in a much much much much safer world) we’ve put all our faith in a way of life which, broadly, makes us unhappy. But at least it’s safe.

The same can be seen in education

Read any education research from the 70s and you’ll find all kinds of idealism and hopefulness. You’ll find both sides of the educational divide framing their beliefs in terms of what society is for, and what counts as good or right. You’ll find people opining that as we become technically more adept at teaching and understand more about the brain, we’ll make space within education for all of the richness of human interaction and growth and creativity.

Look to current debates and you’ll find something else. Take, for example, the recent arguments over compulsory academisation. The main argument put up by the unions and the labours was evidential and economic. They argued, erroneously, that the evidence suggested that academisation made for worse results and that they would cost more than LA-run schools. They disagree about the working-out of the sums, but fundamentally they agree. Fundamentally they agree that what matters in education the speed at which a pre-defined skill can be learnt and demonstrated (parroted, or aped, depending on your jungle-based-animal-analogy of choice). They value the present purely on the basis of what it will be in the future: the child’s current experience is relevant only in terms of impact on future life. Sometimes this future-valuation is seen by good people as a bad thing, as when education is reduced to creating economy-fodder. Good people rightly baulk at the contention that experience x is good if and only if it will have a long term positive effect on employability. But good people also use this method of future-evaluation because they don’t know any other: for example, when early education is judged in terms of later mental-health or exam results.

In both cases both sides agree that the child’s experience of education is never to be valued on its own terms: its value is purely extrinsic, and situated in the future. Both sides speak with a voice stuck firmly in a place of fear and famine. Both sides speak with a voice that does not trust, and can not enjoy or value what is happening right now. A voice which is scared of global racers and technologies and tiger economies and Finland.

What else might they have argued? Well, in these times it is hard to think of an argument which isn’t about efficiency and fear, and still harder to make that kind of feast-argument stand up against the famine-status-quo. These kind of arguments just sound silly because they don’t play into the publicly-sanctioned language of debate. They might have said, for example, that even though ‘evidence’ suggests that method x gets better educational outcomes, method y is more humane, and feels more respectful. Ultimately I would argue that those of us who have worked with young children know, from those children, what is right better than those who watch from outside the relationship. We have been told.

The Family

Ultimately, though, I think argument is the wrong way to think about this. Arguing and debate are themselves modes of interaction which come out of famine: they are concerned with correctly organising what we already have rather than creating something better; discovering something new. Instead we ought to look to areas of life where the feast voices are established and undimmed. And chief amongst them is the home. The way we approach education is the complete inverse of the way that we parent (so long as we’re not hot-housing leopards or whatever). When we parent we delight in the moment, valuing the child intrinsically for what they are, trusting that they will grow and develop (without drawing the logical conclusion that, as a child is not yet as developed as they will become, they are therefore inferior and deficient). We are hopeful and confident and so instil hope and courage and boldness and creativity.

One part of the education system in which a more trusting, creative voice still holds some sway is in the Early Years (0-5). Why? Largely because, and excuse the sexism here, the Early Years has always been dominated by women, and sees education as a natural growth from care and parenting, rather than something which needs to be imposed to address a deficit. But even here the voices which speak from a place of joy and delight and feast are being drowned out by the famine voices of whitehall and ofsted and fearful parents.

Now, I’m not saying that we should all become hippies and just love one another. The feast and the famine each have their place. Feast voices can lead to the kind of excesses seen in Weimar Germany or Chelsea. Your man Nietzsche was all about the feast: he wrote about how the strong can afford to forget because they’re strong and can turn any situation to their advantage by dancing or raping or climbing golden trellaces, or whatever else his blonde beasts got up to. But we’re not Nietzsche – the voices of famine are vital to living well with each other and staying safe and learning. Vital. But they’re not everything, and it’s these famine voices that dominate the public sphere at the moment. In private life it’s different: in spheres where the influence has traditionally been more female we find more of the voices of feast: child rearing, care, friendship. But in public life we’re afraid to take a risk and argue (or sing, shout, whatever) passionately and creatively for anything, especially when a famine voice of science, evidence, economics, or plain old fear stands opposite us.

My own voices are often in a similar (im)balance: the conservative voices win out through their exercise of fear, while the creative, vulnerable, trusting voices cower and fester. My problem is that all of those feast voices need to be heard, and if they’re not allowed a positive space they’ll emerge in potentially harmful and destructive ways. The parallel with public life is clear, as bozos like BoJo and Hitler come to fill the space vacated by good people saying interesting, creative, hopeful things. Scums like Farrage and Trump speak to our need to believe in something bigger than just getting by, but these are feast voices which have gone off, badly, and become parodies of themselves. They inspire a belief in something bigger than fear when they are, in fact, governed by precisely the same fear as the famine voices on the other side. If a quieter, more vulnerable voice emerges which offers an alternative, creative way to be in public life, they’re drowned out by the bullshit and sink without trace. A case in point: Gordon Browns.

Remember Gordon Browns?

No, probably not. It’s hard to look back on his premiership without the taint of the narrative he’s since been crowbarred into, but at the time he took power, he offered something new and, to me anyway, exciting: a moral compass. His first 100 days were charcaterised by quiet and principled good leadership. Although he was all about the moneys, he often eschewed arguments from economics, and spoke instead about bigger ideas of right and wrong. It was good. But he sank. He sank because he listened to the famine voices of well-intentioned but spineless advisors who told him to apologise to a bigot whom he had accurately characterised as a bigot. Instead of taking his serious job seriously, he succumbed to stupid advice and tried, excruciatingly, to smile.

What he offered in those early days was an alternative to the narrative of politics as mere application of evidence: his moral compass was such that it privileged what was right over what is reasonable, or rational (in an economic sense). He reached beyond the past and the fear of the future into something bigger. Because he didn’t couple this with a smiling gonk-face, and lost his nerve when he needed to stick to it (against all reasonable advice), he was hounded out by a hostile press who couldn’t understand what he offered and preferred the cleaner narrative lines of economics, bacon sandwiches, and smiling faces. The same will probably be true of the Corbyn, who also makes no sense to the voices of famine, and is insecure and timid when faced by their reasonableness.

Ugh, this has been quite the ramble. I find it harder to marshal and organise my thoughts into clear arguments when trying to be positive. But perhaps that is part of the problem with positive feast voices altogether. They speak from a place of insecurity and confidence. They’re mixed up. They’re paradoxical and unreasonable. They can be picked apart with analysis and critique. They’re wrong. But they’re also important beyond measure as, without them, we are just fitting in and going along and hoping that we don’t get found out. That’s no way to live.

 

Autism awareness, or empathy

Last week was autism awareness week, or it’s this week; I’m not sure. There was a flim-flam of a drama on the telly which the radio did a talking about, and lots of worthy articles in the guardian. This is fine; autism exists, and it’s good to be aware of things. In fact being aware of things seems to be the most important thing. More than actually doing anything. But that’s another argument. Autism is not only a thing but it is also something that has profound impacts, especially on those at the more autistic end of the spectrum (who, despite claims to the contrary, very rarely show up on tv or in these kinds of discussions). I’ve taught some amazing children on the autistic spectrum and value the work I did with them as some of the most important I’ve done. The wisdom of creating a spectrum which includes the relatively able and non-noticeable with those who need round-the-clock care is, to me questionable, but the existence of autism is not.

Caveats aside, the more I’ve read worthy articles and heard people doing their talking about it, the more worried I’ve become about what underlies our current obsession with (the less severe end of the spectrum of) autism, (a faddish obsession which fifteen years ago was focused on dyslexia, recently was adhd, and soon will be the new made-up-name-to-describe-prickish-tantrums-syndrome-disorder).

I’m going to start my argument with the pretty unforgivable voice of my teenage self arguing against the way that the then-fashionable dyslexia was treated fifteen years ago. He asked: “Why do we define one type of stupidity as deserving of extra time in exams and special support etc., and not others?” He didn’t like it – couldn’t see the logic. I don’t like the way he expressed himself but we’ll follow through the argument before we completely condemn him.

He was told that it was because the dyslexic child’s profile of abilities was high in all other areas but low where written words were concerned. Dyslexic children can understand and reason and speak and do maths and such, but have a specific measurable deficit in this one area. This deficit is unusual – it doesn’t fit what we’d expect – so we should support them to catch up to their overall level.

Teenage Phil thought that the fact that someone had a particular ability-profile with noticeable troughs with the reading and the writing made them no more deserving of special treatment than those who had uniformly low ability, or a whole jumble of abilities which didn’t fit into a pattern at all.

He was told that lots of people had a similar pattern and so there must be some common cause of the unusual pattern. And if something has a common cause it’s not the individual child’s fault: dyslexic children were not responsible for their deficit.

Why, he wondered aloud (though not very loud; he was scared of the bigger boys) should the fact that one person’s issues were shared by another make any difference to their treatment? And didn’t this invalidate the previous argument about them having unusual profiles?

Teenage Phil was told to stop being clever. The uneven development must be caused by some thing, and so did not reflect an underlying level of cognitive ability (like ability does in normal, evenly-able people). The thing that caused unevenness was as yet unknown (take your pick of made up science), but regardless it was a thing and so not their fault.

Whereas the uniformly, evenly-unable children, he was told, were just, well, slow. And although the argument was never made, the implication to Teenage Phil was clear: people whose cognitive development was uniformly lower were more responsible for their problems – because they more accurately reflected who they were as a person – than the dyslexics who aren’t responsible for theirs, or at least not to the same extent.

Teenage Phil made his case a bit too forcefully, and although he had a point he drew the wrong conclusion. Where he thought there should be less support and understanding for dyslexic children, he should have though that there should be more support and understanding for everyone who was struggling, in whatever way. Nevertheless, that teenage voice rose up again this week when I was reading about autism awareness. In a similar vein I became teenagerly and self-righteously-indignant at the badly-thought-through arguments and vapid cliches. Fortunately, I’m a little less gauche than I was back then, and have recast my teenage self-righteousness into one that paints me in a much better light, to wit: I believe that our focus on autism, adhd, dyslexia and the like not only limits our empathy but also manifests a very murky set of norms which are fundamentally conservative and intolerant.

First, then, how does it limit empathy? Consider the classroom (it is, after all, the battle ground for autism and pretty much the only thing I know anything about). In my experience, in a class of thirty there will be at least two children with specific additional needs. These are needs which schools address because they’re clearly defined and there’s protocols to follow for them. The other 28 children see their 2 classmates being additionally supported and come to accept that little Ian or Terry are different and deserve to be understood and made allowance for. Teachers are generally ace at helping children with additional needs’ classmates to understand and make space for them. This is good. It is empathy and is essential to children growing up as tolerant good people.

But what of the other 28? What of the child whose particular behaviour/inability falls into a pattern not recognised as autistic or dyslexic or adhdish? They don’t get any special treatment, and are not empathised with. What of the child who feels isolated, or struggles to integrate into a class of children who belong to a different race? What of the child who smells, or is cripplingly shy (though not with the specific verbal markers that would lead to a spectrum diagnosis)? Because they don’t have a clear set of symptoms associated with their problems – a set which fits a predetermined pattern – these children receive no additional support. And their classmates are taught, implicitly, that these people don’t need to be empathised with: they’re, well, they’re normal. Normal, but a bit rubbish. In this way our empathy (as well as theirs) is limited to the special cases. This is bad enough, but it gets worse when you consider what this picture tells us about ourselves.

The children with recognisable patterns (syndromes, conditions or disabilities) are empathised with because they’re different. Or, to put it another way, because they’re abnormal. But not just any old abnormal; vitally, they have to be an abnormal in a way which we understand, or think we understand. They must be a normal form of abnormal. Why is this? Because it allows us to stay safe in our normality. By understanding their normal abnormality and giving it a name and a pretend (normally biological, often genetic) cause, we free the child of responsibility for those aspects of them which are not normal. Thereby we tell them: you’re not normal, but that’s ok because your abnormality isn’t your fault – it’s not really a part of you it’s just something that happened to you. You’re still normal really, like us, but it’s just some silly genes have gotten in the way of that. We thus tell them: “We accept you but only because we understand the ways in which you are different”. To understand, in this case, is to forgive – to pardon an abnormality which we would otherwise find offensive because of what it might tell us about ourselves. An undefined un-caused un-labelled abnormality is an offense to us becaus eit might change how we view ourselves as parents, friends, teachers, or society as a whole. A ’caused’ abnormality does not.

This is awful, if you think about it. We talk loads about tolerance, but, under the banner of tolerating difference, the message we’re actually sending is that people must disown their bits which are different in order that we can accept them. What’s that? Oh, Teenage Phil wants to give an example. Ok, go on: “Well I’ve heard that we can’t handle the existence of middle-class well-bough-up children being bad at reading so we invent dyslexia and instruct the newly dyslexic children that they are not responsible for this deficit. This achieved, we can now accept them back into middle-class society and claim to be tolerant”. I’m not sure I agree with him – dyslexia exists too – but he has a point in some cases.

And what of the other children?  The ones who don’t have neatly patterned behaviours or aptitudes? Well, they have the opposite problem: as there is no quasi-cause to which we can attribute their issues, they are seen as normal and so held responsible for their sins. They are normal but not good so are, for want of a better word, bad. Children who are less able across-the-board are forced to own all of their difficulties: they are ignored because they should be responsible for themselves. So too are children who are cripplingly shy or needy (that is, until such a time as we can ‘find’ a syndrome which ’causes’ their shyness or neediness with which we can forgive them).

In this way both parties are poorly treated: our empathy is reserved for those who are different (but only if we understand their difference, so the empathy is ultimately distancing and intolerant), and the normals are required to be completely responsible and un-understood. Our empathy is false because it doesn’t allow us to be changed – it tells us nothing about ourselves, because that with which we empathise is precisely that which we are not: abnormal. Genuine empathy means being vulnerable to change: it means understanding that which is different and may tell us something important about ourselves, not about the Other.

And it gets worse, because all the while we’re concerning ourselves with autism and adhd and dyslexia, who is it doing worst in schools? Who are we failing most? Is it the children who have a label? Well, partly yes, for the reasons I’ve set out above, but I’d argue we need to treat them more as normal people and expand our definition of normal, rather than seeing them as special cases (and as with all of this argument, I’m thinking about the less severe end of the spectrum here).

But the children who we are really failing, in their hundreds of thousands, are those children whose parents have little cultural and social capital, and so are worse at playing the game of school-preparation and networking and all of the bullshit that really makes a difference to life chances. There’s loads of them and we’re failing them, every day. They don’t get any empathy, though, because social exclusion and class-inequality are not things that we, as a society, have that much of a beef with. Sure, we might feel a bit bad about it, but if it’s a choice between empathising with a clean clear-cut medically-named case with medical names and a sweet white child from a good family, or a swathe of socially-deprived families whose very deprivation is causally related to our own privilege, we find it a hell of a lot easier to empathise with the former. Add to that our post-ideological distrust of any arguments made without ‘evidence’, and the medical model’s inability to consider anything beyond the biological individual, and you have a great way to empathise in such a way that keeps us safe from being implicated, from changing.

Our empathy only stretches as far as our politics do. Without wishing to sound glib, autistic children (and all of those other children to whom we have assigned labels) are easy to empathise with – their existence comforts us because it reinforces our own normality. Empathising with someone who’s been diagnosed as ‘different’ is never going to change you; you’ve decided that in advance. But being changed is the whole point of empathy. Similarly, tolerance is not about accepting that others exist who are different but separate; it’s about accepting that the way we define ourselves is open to change.

Autistic children need our empathy – especially those on the more autistic end of the spectrum who tend not to show up on tv because they’re not high-functioning enough for us to engage with unproblematically – but so does every child, including the non-specifically-struggling ones. And so, most importantly, do those people who live on the margins of society and do not have the cultural capital to access it. Empathising with them is difficult, but it’s a much better use of a week.

Save the children

For god’s sake.

At the risk of becoming a broken record, I wanted to note (rant about) yet another instance of flacid pseudo-neutral public ‘debate’, this time around education. Last week there was the argument about academies being held – by both sides – in entirely economic terms (with some admirable exceptions, Michael Rosen). I didn’t join in much because I was too angry and sad. This evening it was Save the Children who I heard on the radio, arguing that we need teachers in Nursery classes. The substance of their case doesn’t interest me; it’s an argument that has been going on for ages and says more about the prejudices of those who get involved (that ‘teaching’ and ‘caring’ are separate things) than it does about the children [edit: this blog written by a childminder well illustrates some of the prejudices suffered by those whose work is dismissed as ‘care’ rather than ‘education’]. What interests me are the terms in which Save the Children present their argument. Essentially it runs thus:

Birth-to-five is the most important period for educational development. Brain science shows that if you don’t get the good stuff when you’re little, you’ll never catch up. Evidence shows that children who attend nurseries often miss out on the good stuff, aren’t ready for school when they start at age 4, and fall even further behind as they go on.  Evidence shows that the best educational outcomes for those who risk being left behind arise through the kind of ‘learning interactions’ (‘shared sustained thinking’, as it used to be called) which are predominantly initiated by teachers. Therefore, we should have more teachers in nurseries.

Presented this way it seems pretty incontrovertible – why wouldn’t you want to improve the life chances of the least-privileged children? And they may be right that more teachers in nurseries is a good thing, but the goodness or otherwise of a choice about education does not depend on evidence. Education is bigger than the ‘scientific’* evidence, which, as your man Hume or Kant or whoever said, can’t turn an ‘is’ into an ‘ought’.

In the paraphrased argument above, for example, there’s an implicit belief that ‘educational outcomes’ are desirable. Says who? Seriously, who? In the evidence presented in the study, ‘educational outcomes’ means ‘level 4+ at KS2 SATs’ or ‘5 good GCSEs’ or ‘goes on to attend university’. Are any of these desirable? The answer’s not in the facts, but in a wider moral and social debate. And they’re not isolated from other impacts either. The decision to push for ‘level 4+ at KS2 SATs’ is not without consequences – consequences including the consistent degrading of childhood to a Korean-style drudge of managed dependence, the elimination of creativity from curricula, and a fundamental disrespect for what is most human and important.

I’m not saying we should get rid of SATs (I am; I definitely am) but there is a wider discussion to be held. ‘Educational outcomes’ is a made up thing. It’s not neutral or natural: it’s a measure of something you’ve chosen to measure and value. If Save the Children want to convince us that more teachers are needed in nurseries they have to convince us that the measure they’ve chosen is a good one.

But they don’t, and thereby they miss a trick: by accepting the neutrality of ‘education outcomes’, they forget the children. They forget that a better argument might be that the speed at which a hoop is jumped through (read: educational outcomes) is pretty much irrelevant, and that moral qualities such as creativity courage and care are more important than these hoops.

And this is the problem with regarding education as a science rather than an art – as something fundamentally objective rather than something fundamentally human. Seeing it as a science blinds us to the moral arguments which underlie any particular educational outcome.

What’s worse is that the narrative which sees education as part of a science is now hard-wired into economics. The lowest point of the interview with the Save the Children man was when your man said “And this is important for everyone – not just parents of young children – as, if we don’t get this right for our most vulnerable young children, it’s the economy which will suffer in the long term”. Yeah! You go save those children mister! They’re not going to become economy fodder without you to go save them! Quick, mister, before they fall behind and become a burden in the global race!

I’m sure that Save the Children are a good bunch of people; they save children. But this is what the pseudo-neutral terms of public debate do to good people: it forces them to speak in a language which makes liars and fools of them. And in this case that means bad thinking about education, which means letting children down. Save the Children have bought into a narrative around education which is leading children towards a narrower bleaker future.

Your man (a different one, I can’t remember who) said that you can judge a society on how it treats its elderly. We do pretty badly at that too, but I think you can tell more from how it treats its children. Education is the paradigm case which expresses what we value and want to be as a society. It’s about our hopes for being better people – for seeing the next generation exceed us. It’s about morality and culture and civilisation and purpose and love and humanity. It’s not about evidence.


*Just a brief note on the evidence – most of it is pure bullshit. The kind of bullshit in which ‘learning’ means ‘memorising’. And ‘brain science’ is the bulliest of all of the shits. Seriously, follow up on some of the links and look at how narrow they are in their concept of learning or impact. You can make whatever evidence you want up to grind your educational axe. It’s a cowards game.

A brief thought on academies

All primary schools are to become academies. This has been coming for a while; we all knew it would happen. But it’s sad all the same. The coming privatisation of education was one of the reasons I left full-time teaching, but to those outside education I’m guessing it must be a hard story to follow. From the outside I imagine it sounds like a relatively minor shift in organisation, moving away from a council-led system to a school-led system. It might even sound empowering and optimistic: a redirection of power away from the council and towards the grass roots of schools and teachers. It’s not.

I’m not going to write too much about the sadness I’m feeling today, or about the very good arguments against academisation, because there’s good people doing the same more eloquently than I can. They’re making arguments about the creeping privatisation that has already crept into the heart of the school system, and about the unfairness of un-redistribution of wealth. They’re also making good but fundamentally self-serving arguments about pay and conditions. And they (Lucy Powell) are making bland not-really-arguments about efficacy and budget management, entirely forgetting that education is not primarily an economic issue.

Those arguments are all great (except the last one, obviously, which isn’t even an argument – more of a whine and a shrug), but the point I want to make is a moral (and I hope practical) one about fear and solidarity.

First, then, solidarity. Schools are not islands. They’re part of a community – often the most important part of a community. They’re also part of groups which share practice and knowledge across different schools, groups which get better prices for services by buying in bulk, and myriad other groups. This is important. Without these groupings schools would not function. In the olden days, the groups to which schools most closely adhered were the Local Authorities (the LA) which ran the schools. These were geographical groupings which, like communities did in the olden days, bought together people and schools of different types and attitudes.

When I taught in Enfield, the LA bought together schools in some of the most deprived and dangerous parts of London with schools serving those who lived in streets where the average property price is over £2 million. This served many purposes – not least the redistribution of funding away from schools where it was not needed towards those where it was. But perhaps more importantly it gave us a sense of identity and solidarity with those unlike us. For example, I’m virulently anti-posh, but felt a great sense of solidarity with the posh schools we were partnered with. I felt impelled to help them where I could, and to be helped in return. The LA allowed us to conceive of education as a moral and communitarian project; one based not on efficacy and efficiency and outcome measures, but on solidarity and care. We were in it together.

Doubtless this was an inefficient way to run things. Doubtless changes could’ve been made to make LA’s more useful and coherent – I was the first to complain about the way that the system was being run. But when you take it away what are you left with?

Well, schools not being islands, they will need to band together, as is already happening. But how do they band together in this new, post-LA world? The more ambitious will band together in loose alliances of similarity. Like single-issue political groups they will look for strength in numbers with those who are the same. Geography being no longer such a relevance (we’ve got skypes after all), schools are free to find similarities at a distance and, like teenagers seeking affirmation, find a grouping which buttresses their sense of uniqueness and importance. The less ambitious will (and this is much more likely) out of fear band together under a new boss who tells them what to be and do. These are academy chains. In both cases there is no sense of solidarity with a project which is open to the world – there is just a niche and an inward-looking. A closing off and an erecting of boundaries.

‘So what?’ You might think. ‘If it makes schools better at teaching children why not do it?’ Quite aside from the fact that it doesn’t make schools better, there is a bigger issue here which is that schools socialise children into society. They act as mini-worlds in which children learn what society thinks about them as individuals and groups. In the messy LA-led school environment, there were plenty problems, but there was at least a sense of community and connection and identity. We were public servants doing things because they were right – culturally, socially and morally – not because they worked or because we were being paid. In these academy chains your identity is not provided even in part by a location or a history or a culture – it is provided entirely by an insular grouping of people whose main aim is to make a profit out of the state. This is it. This is the culture that the child is growing up into. This is the message they receive about themselves and their place in the world: your place, child, is not connected to your area or your family or culture or society or nation – your place is defined by a corporation. A business. In these new academy chains there is no public service, no giving; only rational choice and self-interest. Elliott Eisener wrote about the industrial metaphor in education which sees children as input and output. He wrote in the 60s about how it was thankfully disappearing. But its coming back now.

I’ve already written more than I meant to, so I’ll keep my second point – about fear – brief. I’ve written before about fear in the education system, and how it is propagated and accepted at every level from DfE and OfSTED down. The reason I bring it up again is that this is the other message which we are sending to our children: be afraid.

Imagine, for a moment, what this new loosening of constraints would have looked like if there were no OfSTED or league tables. It might have inspired a revolution in creativity and connection and care, as schools concentrated on what really matters to their children and to society. All of the time spent following developing and implementing useless and harmful curricula could be refocused on children’s development as people. Schools would have grouped together in order to be more responsive, open and creative, and teachers would have become researchers and artists, able and trained to trust the children in their care.

But in a climate of fear and oversight, schools are not in a place to do this. The driving concern is to maintain and keep safe. This is what motivates them to band together. The main aim is not to get it wrong and be found wanting. Creativity can not flourish in these circumstances. Neither can children. But this is what we will soon be teaching them about themselves and the world.

 

Childhood Mental Health

Children are having a hard time of it at the moment. They’re experiencing higher levels of anxiety and stress, are more likely to be bullied, and have more suicidal thoughts. Nine years ago Unicef judged child well-being in the UK to be the lowest in Europe – 21st out of 21. And although we’d gone up a couple of places by 2010, spending cuts in young peoples’ services look likely to put us back down the table.

Good news, then, that the ASCL (one of the organisations that speaks for headteachers) has spoken out against the rise in child mental health issues, and the low standard and quantity of support children and schools receive in this area. Good news right? If a child is suffering from stress, anxiety, self-harm or suicidal thoughts we should get some support out to them, right? Surely, Phil, you’re not going to get your anti-psychiatry out on this most-vulnerable group of people and say they shouldn’t be treated as ill?

No, I’m not. Obviously it’s a good idea to support someone going through awful times. To borrow an analogy I have no right to borrow, when my arthritis manifested as an unsightly rash on my forehead, I was pretty keen to get that seen to. Treating the symptom was important.

P1110968
I wrote this in a rush. Sorry about that. I’ve put in some nice pictures of children on beaches to make up for it.

But what happens next? Do we allow the symptom to tell us something important about what is causing it, or do we ignore it because it’s being treated?

Many years ago your man Laing (King of the anti-psychiatrists) wrote that in a fundamentally insane world, a ‘schizophrenic’ response was more reasonable and rational than a ‘sane’ response. He saw mental illness as a symptom of bad situations in the world, and so alongside helping his patients change and adapt, he advocated for change in the world. He took their symptoms seriously, and listened to them. For example, writing in the late 60s Laing pointed out the number of patients he saw who were suffering mental ill-health because of the stress placed on them by impending nuclear war. As well as helping them to come to terms with this stress and to live with it, he also campaigned against nuclear arms and wrote prolifically on the subject, helping wider society understand the fears that some people found overwhelming them. That is, he took the symptom and allowed it to have a voice in shaping society as a whole.

So what does it tell us that the incidence of child mental ill-health is rising, and that child well-being is the lowest in Europe? What can it tell us about us? Nothing; it’s a statistic. To learn the lessons, we need to go out and listen to the children who are suffering, and we need to allow their voices to change us. I have my own theories (what little contact I still P1110476have with the education system has shown me ever-increasing efficiency inversely proportional to genuine human contact) but it’s not about my theories – it’s about the voice of the children – the most unempowered, unlistened-to, vulnerable group in society.

Last week I wrote about the importance of allowing narratives other than the physicalist narrative to emerge and have a voice in mental health. This is especially the case with children, who lack the social and political weight to make their voices – their understandings – heard in society at large. If we don’t make the effort to listen, and don’t allow their voices to change us, then in the coming years child mental-health will go the same way as adult mental health and education: it will become increasingly efficient, evidence-based, physicalist, and inhumane. It will become a private issue for specialists rather than a public issue which everyone is obliged to engage with. It will treat symptoms more effectively (which means CBT-style coping strategies for children, ‘psycho-education’ the parents, and medication for both as an all-too-reachable second-line), and so will obscure the problem which caused the symptom, allowing us to ignore that problem and continue to push children through the system out into the global race. And soon, we hope we’ll have an education system which rivals that of South Korea. Great.