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.


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 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:

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.

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.

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.

Footsoldiers or Connoisseurs

(Paper presented at the Keele Counselling Conference on 7/5/16)

When the opportunity to present at the conference came up, my first thought was: what’s the point? Why bother? I’ve got nothing important to say and even if I did it wouldn’t change anything anyway.

For anyone who knows me and knows how passionate I am about counselling and about education and research, that would’ve come as something of a shock; I’m normally the first to jump at opportunities like this. And it shocked me as well. The more I dwelt on this shock and the negativity, the more I thought that I did have something I wanted to say: not to talk about my research, but to tell the story of doing the research – the story which ended with me feeling so negative and dis-empowered.

We’ll hear a lot of positive and inspirational things this weekend about creative research. My paper is going to sound very negative next to them, but I hope this negativity can serve a useful purpose. I hope that my story of isolation will resonate with others’ experiences, and highlight the danger that faces us when we, as practitioners, are separated from the knowledge creators. I also hope that the journey I’ve been on may gesture towards a different way to think about ourselves as professionals, and about what knowledge in counselling could mean.

Research, Knowledge and Fear

I’m going to start, then, with a very brief description of my Masters dissertation. My plan was to investigate my own identity as a white, heterosexual, middle-class man; to look at the privileges that this conferred and how I often failed to acknowledge or engage with these. I wanted to challenge my insider safety and security by involving others in the process – others who didn’t belong to the groups I belong to – others who could challenge and change me.

Fearing that any established method I chose would merely repeat and reinforce my privilege, I adopted an anti-methodological methodology. I hoped to ‘meet’ my participants, in Buber’s sense, with as few technical or power-full impediments as possible. So I sought dialogue – meeting – with Others, with no pre-set method at all except to engage and to keep on engaging. I had no criteria guiding the research except those which emerged in discussion and debate. I was the author and took responsibility for the work, but was not in complete control at any stage.

What did this look like in practical terms? Well, it meant holding an initial dialogue between myself and my participants which focused on identity (but was otherwise unstructured). Following this, both my participants and I would reflect on the transcript of that discussion and engage in further dialogue about these reflections, both via email and in person. This process would continue, spiralling hermeneutically towards a better, richer understanding of our encounters. The work would evolve in dialogue with my participants, rather than being an analysis of this dialogue.

So what happened? Well, it was a complex study, but one of the main threads that runs through the dissertation – and that I want to focus on today – is the way in which, after each dialogue, I would go away and try to understand what had occurred, and then share this attempt at understanding. And each time I shared this attempt at understanding, I would be told in response: “You’re trying to make this too clean, Phil – too final – too sensible”. I was told:  “You’re trying to understand it – to stand underneath it and justify and encompass it all”. And further, I was told that this movement was symptomatic of a privilege which seeks to encompass and erase difference.

As the piece developed, then, my participants were telling me that my goal of telling a clear story, or even of just plain understanding at all were themselves goals of a privilege which whitewashed and denied difference. I was invited instead to sit with the discord, to hear rather than understand; to allow the project to outgrow me.

I found this very difficult, and I shared these difficulties with my participants in a way which itself felt exposing and uncomfortable. But ultimately it was these moral and political criteria which led the writing of the dissertation. Ultimately I decided, in dialogue with my participants, that the moral and political imperative called upon me to include all of our voices, often uncommented upon, instead of rigorous analysis and clear explanation. I spent the majority of my allotted 20,000 words on these dialogues, and trusted to my reader that what mattered would come through in the writing.

The work was hugely worthwhile for me and, I hope, for my participants, and I don’t regret it. The learning I took away was of a moral, emotional and political nature, centring on what it means to be defined by others, and how unethical it can be to resist this. I have kept it with me and continue to learn from it.But the practical consequence of going off-piste in my research was that I got a much worse mark than I would have liked. This was the right mark, but the effect it had on me, which I hadn’t foreseen, was to feel excluded from academia.

And not only to feel excluded, but also, in a small way, to be excluded, as, without a distinction next to my name, I’m less likely to get funding for a PhD and, as I’m a counsellor, there’s certainly no way I can self-fund.

Now, this was my choice – I chose to write in a way which I knew risked getting a bad mark. But the feeling of being excluded from the bodies which create the knowledge that we as counsellors apply, set me in mind of other instances of alienation, and I realised that it’s something of a theme in my professional life.

Being a member of the BACP, for example, is for me an experience of having a distant, paternalistic instructor tell me what not to do. I feel I have very little voice in the body which represents me, and feel that it only represents the bland, quiet, profitable aspects of me.*

And this in turn set me in mind of another instance of isolation from my previous life as a teacher. Some years ago, while doing an MA in early years education, I conducted a piece of action research with my staff team. This research sought to raise our awareness of our interactions with young children and to reflect on these: to learn from the children and to learn how to learn from them. This was a fundamentally trusting, human, and relational piece of work, in which we all had a voice. And it paid great dividends, opening up new avenues of practical knowledge which would not have been accessible without this relational method. It was fundamentally lived, practical knowledge – it’s not the sort of thing that an outsider observing could have discovered. But not only did this knowledge not spread beyond us, it was soon overturned and negated by more official forms of knowledge: by initiatives backed up by extremely dubious but extremely evidence-focused research.

We had been encouraged to find our own practical knowledge, but were effectively told soon afterwards: “This is local, specific and not really proper knowledge. Our large scale studies are more important – they are more true”. In the years which followed this I found myself becoming more and more isolated from the sources of knowledge-creation in education, and, at the same time (because I was required to see and interact with my students in terms of this evidence-based ‘knowledge’), more and more isolated from the children in front of me. Eventually, the gap became too large and, reluctantly, I left.

The Risk to Counselling

Is this really a risk though? Do my own personal experiences really illustrate something larger? I don’t think counselling will ever end up where teaching has. For one thing counselling is much more private an enterprise, and a less political issue than teaching, and it has, at present, no statutory authorities. But I do think it’s worth considering what can happen when those practising a profession are completely isolated from the means of knowledge-creation, as is the case with teachers now. And there are signs that counselling is moving in that direction. For example, how is knowledge created in counselling? Who gets to say what counts and what doesn’t?

Well, to briefly divert into a little Foucault, there are many different discourses through which knowledge is used and defined in counselling. I want to focus on one particular discourse which is steadily gaining power and which I believe, if left un-engaged with, will widen the gap between the creators of knowledge and those who apply it. The discourse is that of evidence-based practice.

This is a discourse which holds that the only real knowledge is knowledge gained through randomised-controlled-trials and objective studies by neutral outsiders. It is a discourse which holds that knowledge is objective and measurable, and all that is not objective or measurable is not knowledge. This discourse has gained its power both through practical means such as the provision of employment to those who agree to it, and by broader cultural means.

On a practical level, for example, if you hope to work for the NHS – the largest employer in the UK – there’s a very good chance that you will have to accept the medical model and drop those elements of your personal beliefs which conflict with this. You will have to accept that you cannot learn from the patient, for example, and that your practice is defined by the research of others – others who measure a relationship as a series of inputs and outputs. You will have to accept that your clients are essentially lacking, and that you will fill in their gaps by operating a manual. If you don’t (or at least if you don’t pretend to), you won’t get work. Them’s the rules.

This practical power is hugely powerful, but there’s a larger societal story to tell too, about the systematic stripping-away of ideology and morality from public discourse. This de-politicising and de-moralising of public debate has left a vacuum into which the evidence-based-practitioners and their friends, the economists, have stepped. Economic impact is now the sole bottom line of almost all public debate, and so, increasingly, the knowledge that counts is knowledge which is measurable and has economic impacts. Just think of Lanyard. Knowledge of a more personal, local kind, does not count, because it cannot be measured.

This means that if you want to be engaged in creating knowledge; knowledge that matters, knowledge that has an impact, then it must be of this sort. Any other just holds no sway. Them’s the rules.

This is particularly pernicious a state of affairs in counselling, where so much of what we do – as is the case in teaching and in creative research – is about remaining open to and meeting the Other. The best of teaching and counselling and research is about a disciplined openness, in which we learn in relationship and from the relationship not about the relationship. But if you’re practising EBP you cannot be open to the client (or the child, or your subject-matter), because they are not in the evidence. And that means that you cannot learn from the client. And that means you let the client down.

As counsellors we can often end up feeling powerless in the face of the ‘evidence-based practice’ discourse: we often feel that the ‘knowledge’ created within this discourse is wrong but feel we cannot say so – we just don’t have the words.

Giving us the Words – Elliot Eisner and the Connoisseur

I want to end today by suggesting a framework within which we can start to stand up for ourselves more vocally and explicitly – a framework which will give us the words. And to do so I’m going to use a concept from the work of an educationalist called Elliot Eisner.

Eisner (and a cat)

Instead of the technical or industrial approach to knowledge which we see in evidence-based practice, Eisner suggested that teachers may benefit from adopting a more artistic model of knowledge. Looking to the world of art, Eisner found that although there was no overall regulator dictating standards or evaluative criteria, there were, nevertheless, clear criteria and standards which were constantly being negotiated, developed and refined between artists and critics and audiences. And further, he found that these criteria provided enough structure for people to practice well and to improve their practice.

Within the world of art Eisner found explicit, measurable and objective criteria such as technical skill and draughtsmanship (much as we’d find in EBP), alongside criteria relating to established canons of practice and theory (and so an understanding of what knowledge has been passed down to us – much as we’d find in the ‘schools’ or ‘tribes’ approach to counselling), alongside amorphous but no less important criteria such as, for example, emotional impact and moral worth. Eisner called the person who engages with these different criteria and weighs them up against each other a connoisseur. These connoisseurs have a felt sense honed over years of direct, lived experience and dialogue, and use this engage in a community of rigorous discussion about truth, value and meaning in art. They have a shared sense of purpose, direction and practice, but within that disagree reasonably and rigorously about how to achieve those ends.

Eisner hoped to import that culture of critique and connoisseurship into education. He loathed the curricula which sought to control every aspect of a child’s experience in school. But he also distrusted the wooliness of unreflective teachers who were often just going along with tradition because it’s what we do. Education, as he saw it, was a messy human process, with aspects of culture and morality and subjective taste, as well as aspects of efficacy and science and objective research. He wanted teachers to be open to the cultural and individual, as well as the universal and rational. He wanted them to develop their own language to weigh up these different ways of judging and make informed, situated choices between them. Eisner knew that the only way that the art/science of teaching could be protected from industrialised knowledge-creation was to encourage teachers to take an active role in their own community of connoisseurs; for each and every one of them to become a researcher who could stand up for their own lived knowledge, and engage with each others’.

How does this help us in counselling? Well the best counselling is messy and human. It is a moral and ethical as well as a technical process. As counsellors we are artists but we are not just artists. We are concerned with our impact in the world and with doing counselling well. How these different aspects – these different criteria – are to be balanced is an unsolvable conundrum. But what Eisner’s notion of the connoisseur highlights is that this unsolvable balancing act is one which we must continue to debate instead of ceding, frightened, to one particular discourse. It gives us confidence, I hope, to engage in this debate – to say, unashamedly: “My standard of judging is potentially more important than yours”. To say “I understand things from the inside which you, on the outside, cannot grasp, and vice versa”. To face up to the EBP and engage with it rather than rejecting it out-of-hand, or slavishly submitting to it. To place the lived relationship and therefore the client at the centre of our work and to learn from these, arguing once again in our clients’ best interests.

The notion of the community of connoisseurs gives us a language through which to place practical knowledge on a par with technical knowledge, and to take back some control of our work. It gives us confidence, I hope, to acknowledge the compromised, messy nature of relationship, and to reject the totalising, manualising impulses of industrial knowledge where they are inappropriate.

My Journey to Keele

Which brings me to the closing remarks of my paper, and the question: how do we get to a position in which our voices as connoisseurs can be heard?

The battle has been lost – for the moment – in teaching. I left the profession because I felt I was not enough, and that there were too few people to fight with, and too few words with which to argue. But we are fortunate that we already, in counselling, share aspects of connoisseurship in, for example, the supervisory relationship, and in conferences like this, today. This conference is an opportunity for connoisseurship; for us to find our voices. We won’t find our voices by looking above for someone to give them us: we need to look towards each other, and stand up for – and to – each other. But the point I want to leave you with is that we have to look outwards as well as inwards – to those who disagree as well as to those who agree. If our situated, creative local knowledge matters we need to be saying that to others as well as to each other. We need to stand up together and say: “This matters. It is important. You need to listen”.

Part of my journey has been to expose myself here today and to say: my research was worthwhile because, in that instance, the moral and political were worth more than the analytic and judgemental. The lived-experience was more important than the mark scheme. Part of my own journey has also been to switch from the academic route into blogging as an avenue for reaching more people outside of the bubble of those who agree with me: turning out as well as in. Which seems like a very good place to stop and turn outwards to you for questions…

* After I presented this paper, I attended a keynote presentation by Andrew Reeves (of BACP chair fame), and my views have somewhat changed. An article based on this paper will briefly explore this in an upcoming issue of Therapy Today.

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.

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.

Teachers Case Discussion Group

Supervision is a bit of a buzz-word in the public sector at the moment. I’ve heard about it being rolled out for mental health professionals, nurses, social workers, special needs practitioners and those with responsibility for child protection. I’ve heard about excellent practice that is human and responsive and helps people understand their work better, and I’ve heard about awful practice which is little more than a box-ticking exercise, and which does more harm than good. I have written here and here about the need that I believe exists for supervision for teachers, but what form should it take?

Compulsory Individual Supervision

Personally, I have found that one of the reasons counselling supervision works is because it is compulsory. For every 8 hours I work with clients, I need to see my supervisor for an hour. This means that even in those weeks when everything appears to be going along just fine, I still have to discuss my practice. Invariably it is these sessions that yield the most in terms of professional and personal growth, as they allow me space to think about myself and my work in broader terms rather than focussing on problem-solving. In these sessions I have found my consciousness raised, as more aspects of my personality and beliefs are challenged and integrated into my identity as a counsellor. I have found myself questioning fundamental assumptions and developing a more nuanced, open, human understanding of my work.

Of course, teachers are not required to seek regular supervision, especially not of the consciousness-raising kind. The state has returned us over the last 5 years to a model of teaching which Elliott Eisener called the industrial metaphor. Within this teachers are cogs on an assembly line, applying best-practice efficiently in order to churn out the kind of economy-fodder that will get us ahead in the global race. Cogs do not need to know why they are doing what they are doing. Cogs do not ask questions about the value and meaning of the work they are doing to children, so supervision (unless it can be shown to be best-practice) is not likely to become an integral part of teaching. Anyway, soap-box aside, the only way to create compulsory supervision would be to work within a school which made it an integral part of their system. This is appealing, but would take the kind of strong leadership which, in the current climate, is not always evident. In addition, supervision provided under the auspices of a school – even if the supervisor was independent – runs the risk of being seen by supervisees as another tool of management, or part of the performance-management regime. As a counsellor, my supervisor is not connected to my workplace in any way, so I can discuss institutional issues without any fear of reprisals or conflicted interests.

Elective Individual Supervision

So, compulsory supervision is out, for the moment, but what about elective supervision? I recently moved to Birmingham and have started working with a new counselling supervisor. Trawling through the counselling directory, I was surprised by how many supervisors offered their services for professionals other than counsellors and psychotherapists, including teachers. So the option is out there, but I wonder how many teachers know about it, and if they did how many would feel confident talking to someone from the murky world of counselling about their work. As I struggled with the decision to leave teaching two years ago, paying to talk to someone outside of education about my fears and worries would have felt too much like an admission of failure, and far too risky.

Balint Groups

If individual supervision is unlikely, what about group work? Although groups can be more daunting than one-to-one supervision, there is also safety in numbers, and the potential for solidarity. Indeed, there is a strong tradition of group supervision in counselling and healthcare, and it is from this tradition that the Teachers Case Discussion Group has emerged.

Michael Balint was a psychoanalyst who, with his wife Enid, developed the Balint group – a method by which GPs (but increasingly groups of other professionals) could discuss and engage with their experience of their work. Without going into the theory too deeply, the aim was to help GPs understand themselves, their patients, and the relationship between them, better. The group leaders would thus focus the discussion, but would not offer advice or solutions.

The Teachers Discussion Group

teachers case discussion group 1.4-page-001Joan Fogel and I have set up a group based in part on Balint’s work, at the Tavistock in North London. In practical terms, in the teacher group the sessions proceed as follows: after the group members introduce themselves, one person offers to discuss a case that is troubling or interesting them. The case might be a particular pupil experienced as challenging, or relationships with staff or parents, or broader concerns with the education system. The speaker is encouraged to explore in as much detail as they can the lived experience of their case. The group may ask factual questions to flesh out the specifics of the situation, but aside from this there is at this stage no interaction.

Their story told, and factual questions answered, the speaker is invited to move their chair back slightly, symbolically leaving the circle of the group. From this slight remove the speaker follows the discussion that the group begin about what they have heard. The facilitators do not lead the discussion, but ensure that it focusses less on recommendation or critique, and more on group members explaining how they were making sense of what they had heard: what resonated, which words made an impression, what memories were triggered? Although there will be a lot of teaching expertise in the room, the facilitators aim to create the kind of space where participants can sidestep the performance management emphasis on accountability, achievement and efficiency, and open up a more human dialogue about teaching – one which they own and define for themselves. The emphasis is more on empathising and making sense than trying to solve problems.

Following this reflective discussion, the original speaker is invited to return to the circle and pick up on anything s/he has noticed, felt, or wishes to share. At this stage the discussion is less formally delineated and may take many different forms, though the facilitators will ensure that the discussion remains non-judgemental.

This process is repeated with another case from a different group member. Over time everyone has the opportunity to present their own cases and so benefit from the reflections of others. However, many participants find that hearing and empathising with others’ stories is of equal value. As the group grows and develops, participants will often offer brief updates from previous sessions, sharing what has changed (or not) for them.

It is the group that does the work in the Teacher’s Case Discussion Group, but the facilitators have an important role to play too. They create the space in which people can begin to feel confident to let their guard down, and they monitor the discussion to ensure that it continues to remain safe and non-judgemental. Beyond this, they also have an eye to the dynamics that exist within the group, and to what these might tell us about the case in discussion, and about the members of the group more broadly. This attitude is based in Group Analysis, which pays close attention to the way in which unconscious processes may play out in personal processes or organisational issues. For example, the facilitator may note the way in which a presenter who feels unsupported by their colleagues may feel similarly towards group members. Or, if the presenter feels frustrated by a pupil, the group might consider the possibility that that’s how the pupil might be feeling.

Challenges and the Future

The main difficulty of getting a group like this up and running is that those who would get the most out of such an opportunity are those who are least likely to have the energy and resilience to take the risk of joining. I know that I would not have exposed myself in this kind of setting when I was at rock-bottom, or even half-way up: I was too concerned with getting through and surviving. I was too afraid of opening up and being swamped by what lay beneath. Although the feedback when we first advertised and discussed this group was overwhelmingly positive and enthusiastic, take-up has been less so. This is not necessarily surprising; we understand and are resigned to the fact that it takes groups like this time to become established, but it is frustrating to think of those who would benefit greatly from having such an opportunity feeling too isolated to take it.

There is also the question of stigma. Within teaching it is expected that you will find the job draining and difficult, but it is also expected that you will suck it up and soldier on through. You have the holidays to recover, after all. Even if I had felt able to seek this kind of support, I wouldn’t have felt able to admit it to my colleagues.

That said, the response has been optimistic, and there are a number of people across the country who are passionate about starting up groups like the Teachers Case Discussion Group. Hopefully these will contribute to a change in the culture of teaching which re-empowers those who engage daily with our nation’s future, rather than waiting for change to appear from above.