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Catholics between the (spread)sheets

In the last couple of days I’ve been chewing over some poll data published by YouGov, commissioned by Lancaster University and linked to the Westminster Faith Debates initiative, which popped on to my radar through a link to this article in the Tablet written by Linda Woodhead, who uses the data to makes claims about what most Catholics think ‘about sex, the family and ethical matters surrounding it.’
From the outset, it should be said Catholics and those who care about the Church should welcome studies like this, engaging with the information they reveal about our Church and our people.  Whilst we might, with the help of a certain Roman Prefect of Judaea, point out that Truth is not a thing determined by the numbers of those who assent to it, that doctrine is not developed or revised on the transient whims of plebiscites, nonetheless there are valuable lessons to be learned, be it for the catechist, or or the parish priest, or the church hierarchy generally. Numbers can, when reliable, add specific texture to what might otherwise remain a hunch – anything that might add substance to the usual cliché of ‘nobody believes x anymore’ ought to raise an eyebrow of interest.
And so we come to the polls, reported on by Professor Linda Woodhead, fast becoming the public authority on the country’s religious habits. The written report is detailed and fairly extensive, and generally confirms those societal trends and changes in attitudes about which we are regularly told, and of which most of us could acknowledge as probably broadly true.
So far, so uncontroversial.
And yet, on reading the article, one cannot help but feel that between the numbers and the conclusions drawn there exists an epistemic gap bridged with an interpretative vigour lacking in the sobriety one might expect to find in such a high profile piece of research. To declare an interest, I am a Roman Catholic: maybe it is the recusant DNA, but I’ve long been wary of accepting at face value any official information about who Catholics are and what they believe. Yet in this report, non-sequiturs and questionable inferences seem to jump out of the page quite apart from whether one is predisposed to look for them.
One holds back, of course, from accusing Woodhead of intentional bias, since there is no reason to doubt her integrity in these matters (though I’m inclined to think the Tablet would welcome such findings with analysis-free glee) – still, the eyes through which one looks will indubitably mould the way something looks. And if the overarching analysis of socio-religious climate is one of culture clash between the religiously orthodox and everyone else, then perhaps we ought to be sensitive to the possibility that such conclusions might just find themselves as the tease and temptress of the data analyst charged with interpreting the mass of numbers on a screen before them.
And so, to choose just a couple of examples, we read that, on the basis of the fact that almost three-quarters of British Catholics think sex is important for a fulfilled life, therefore ‘traditional teachings about the value of celibacy have largely been abandoned’. Really? Can that interpretation reasonably be drawn? Or again, ‘Marriage has ceased to be an essential element of the family in most Catholic minds, with only a quarter disapproving of unmarried couples raising children.’ Such a conclusion strikes one as being so obviously flawed that one wonders how it was able to be drawn in the first place. And there are numerous other examples where an interpretation might fit snugly into pre-existing assumption (‘ordinary Catholics ignore church teachings’), but cannot reasonably be drawn from the data presented in the article. It must be acknowledged, of course, that Woodhead is trying to distil large chunks of data into a small article, and so broad brush strokes are to an extent inevitable – but such statements are at least enough to encourage one to probe further rather than take such statements at face value.
At which point, other issues begin to appear.  For example, we are told that ‘Catholics also depart from church teaching when it comes to contraception: only 9 per cent say they would feel guilty using it, and 12 per cent of weekly churchgoers.’ That sounds fairly conclusive, fairly authoritative. But looking at the three polls commissioned, the only reference I can see to the issue of contraception is the first poll commissioned, of 4437 adults, of whom just 354 self-identified as Catholics. Of this 354, which was weighted up to 391, only 125 (of the weighted number) said they ‘currently engage in religious or spiritual practices with other people’ (which might not include Mass) and of whom 65 (weighted number) said they do this at least once a week (again, which might not include Mass).
Thus, use of the phrase of ‘weekly churchgoers’ is already a doubtful one, whilst the broader claim being made is substantiated by the responses of just 57 people.
One need not be a looking for mischief, or even questioning the truth of the broader argument (that most Catholics do not follow church teachings on contraception), to point out that as far as evidential basis goes that really is wafer thin.
Of course, such claims might be given the weight of other studies, and indeed of generally accepted social norms, enough to allow a certain amount of confidence in reporting them in such robust terms. But that in itself can lead one to question the moderation of the reporting. And if a suspicion exists of a certain exuberance in dealing with the numbers and what they tell us, then it is only heightened when one notes some of the language used: we read, for example, that differences on sexual ethics is a ‘rift runs right through the Catholic population in Britain, isolating a minority who hold fast to the current official teaching from a majority who do not. [my emphasis]’
Setting aside the already questionable phrase ‘current official teaching’, and letting slide the fairly provocative description of those who remain orthodox Catholics, it must be noted that any talk of a rift, age-correlated or otherwise, is more of an insight into the one reading the numbers than anything else – to make such a causal link is entirely unwarranted.  Indeed, perhaps it is the use of that word, ‘rift’, which best encapsulates the question of whether Woodhead’s interpretations come from the prior acceptance of a culture war narrative – it evokes an image of people in the pews being engaged in personal conflict with one another about the truth and observance of fundamental church doctrines, with all the younger liberal folk on one side, and older conservatives on the other. In my experience at least, this is simply not true (the only ever issue on which I have experienced anything even remotely similar is the issue of liturgy).
Most people in most pews simply don’t know what most other people in most pews believe about most things. To say there is a rift is to either misuse the word, with its related connotations, or to submit lived reality to the expectations of a macro-level sociocultural analysis. And all that on the basis of some pretty feeble numbers (the questions that make up the sexual ethics category largely appear in the two general polls, which have small Catholic numbers, and even smaller active Catholic numbers, and are largely absent, curiously, from the poll aimed specifically at Catholics.)
One can speculate as to why that might be, but for those slowly inclining toward suspicions of bias, unwitting or otherwise, then the wording of some of the questions asked is unlikely to disabuse the cynic of such a notion. For example, in the third poll aimed specifically at Catholics, two of the questions which might conceivably, though tangentially, be linked to any category on sexual ethics (Catholic adoption agencies and the Peter Hazelmary Bull B&B case), are so appallingly worded (and factually inaccurate)and so obviously weighted toward a particular response that they should be classed as junk, with no conclusions to be drawn from them (*see below). Indeed, when a question is so hostile to a presumed target, one really cannot but help question either the motives, or the unwitting but thorough bias, of those asking the question. Peter Hitchens once said that polls were often used to drive public opinion, not inform people about what it is. I suspect that this data is a case in point.
And so, whilst the polls make interesting reading, they must also be approached with an element of caution – one would surely be foolish to draw too many concrete conclusions from them, despite the authority one might expect of data coming from a well-funded and high profile organisation, publishing their research in mainstream media. When probed, the data can tell different stories, stories which will, of course, never be told. We also see, for example, that those who identify as humanist/secularist are more likely to feel bad about contraception, support gender segregation in worship and education, and feel guilty about premarital sex than Christians are. We see that Labour voters are more like than any else to look for support or guidance from God or a higher power when making crucial decisions, and we see that euroscepticism seems to be the preserve of the less well qualified in educational terms. Lastly, we see that only Londoners think society has got better since 1945, whilst most of the rest of us think it has got worse.
All of which I’ll take with a pinch of salt. Except for the last one, which pretty much confirms my pre-existing biases. And if I was so inclined, I might even jump on it to substantiate those pre-existing biases, using it to reinforce a narrative I have long cultivated, about London getting all the best of everything whilst the rest of us get shafted. ‘See!’, I’d say, ‘I bloody told you southerners were spoiled – this proves they’re smug about it too. I was right all along. We need to abolish London.’ But then, that would be a questionable conclusion. Drawn from a questionable interpretation. Drawn from a distinctly squiffy evidence base. 
*Q1 – Do you think that bed-and-breakfast (B&B) owners should or should not be allowed to refuse accommodation to people based on their sexuality?
Q2 – In 2008, a gay couple were refused entry to a bed-and-breakfast on grounds of their sexuality based on the Christian beliefs of the owners. The bed-and-breakfast owners have since been ordered by the courts to pay damages of £3,600 to the couple. Do you think it was right or wrong that the bed-and-breakfast owners were ordered to pay damages to the couple?

Teaching RE

So, the latest way in which schools have failed children has been revealed today, clear as it now is that standards of teaching in Religious Education, and the teaching of Christianity in particular, are well below any minimum expected standard.
As one might expect, the more excitable tribalists have jumped immediately on their mounts and declared TOTAL WAR on Michael Gove, uniquely responsible as he is for the falling standards that have been identified at various points over the last few decades or so. Whilst it cannot really be denied that his reforms have had the kind of impact on RE that just about everybody said they would, nonetheless Gove is more harbinger than the Doom itself. He may well have made it easier for schools to drop RE – but that schools should wish to do so is nothing for which Michael Gove can be held culpable.
No, the reason RE is expendable is because RE has made itself expendable, being racked with an existential uncertainty regarding the value and indeed justification of its very soul. RE is too often the Woody Allen of the school curriculum, the gallic shrug of the school timetable: like apologising when someone else bumps into us, it is that part of schooling which we do without quite knowing why, before apologising again for the uncertainty. In short, RE has become a subject of which the majority are fundamentally unsure – of what it is and what we are trying to achieve in delivering it.
To formulate some kind of response, or rather tentative explanation, a degree of commonality with non-RE comrades must be acknowledged –  just like many other subjects, RE is racked with indecision on whether our goal is to teach students how to know, or what to know. What forms the fault lines between ‘progressives’ and ‘traditionalists’ throughout the curriculum plays out acutely in the RE classroom – though of course with extra hand wringing. Obviously. And you can bet those hands and that wringing will be Fair Trade. Probably.
Which brings us to popular conceptions of what RE actually is. For some, especially prevalent amongst those who don’t teach it, RE is just citizenship with some colourful festivals thrown in. It is there for us to study all about these religious types of whom we have heard tell, with success defined by how well such teachings helps create that kind of textbook civic society to be found primarily in the wet dreams of PPEers. This approach is already institutionally detached from, and condescending toward, those who hold religious belief, treating their subjects as curious artefacts in much the same manner that colonial navigators viewed their fur-clad, machete-wielding charges before writing home to their countrymen about how we must seek to protect and understand these primitive cultures.
Mary Bousted, General Secretary of the ATL (and supporter of the Accord Coalition/Secular Society Lite), summed up this this citizenship-lite approach in saying that RE is ‘vital for our young people so that they understand the role of religion and belief in society.’
Yet, in fairness to Bousted, she is only reaffirming the standard presumptions of many in the political and educational echelons. Which illustrates the irony: whereas OFSTED now pose as the warrior guardians of rigour in RE, it was they who helped set it on its current course by placing such emphasis on 90s buzzwords like ‘diversity’, ‘multiculturalism’ and ‘community cohesion’. And what OFSTED wanted OFSTED got –a touch of humility might just be in order before the Finger of Shame gets pointed at teachers suddenly finding themselves on the wrong end of an unexpected step-change.
However, the identity crisis goes further than just this. If the influence of the political classes turned RE into the propaganda arm of the Ministry for A Lovely Civic Society, so the academy must shoulder its own portion of blame. Indeed it is the academy, more than any government, which has given RE an identity crisis the likes of which would leave the average postmodernist looking overly dogmatic.
For too long, RE teaching has been beset by pedagogical presumptions that strike at the very heart what RE ought to be about. Just as JFK reassured a prejudiced public that he had the schizophrenic capacity to indelibly separate faith and the political, so teachers arriving on their training courses have been for too long bombarded into believing that RE can only be delivered through a pedagogical version of the same. To do otherwise is ethically dubious, or intellectually dubious, or probably both, and whilst we’re at it you’re probably not safe to be left with kids anyway, a kind of teaching Pied Piper of Waco just waiting to indoctrinate children and lead them away from the safety of secular presumption.
And this secular presumption is the largely unchallenged King of the academy. It sees itself as the guardian of neutrality and disinterested pursuit of knowledge. For those who ascribe to it, this approach opens up the airwaves to the crowing chorus of religious diversity, allowing us to dispassionately pluck the juiciest fruits of each. That such an approach might not be neutral, nor indeed disinterested, is rarely countenanced: that it might severely limit understanding considered a heresy. No, the terms of debate are clear – you either accept scholarly secularity or you are dogmatic/fundamentalist/bigoted (delete as appropriate).
Which is a touch inconvenient for those of us who insist such a paradigm is reductive and distorts true understanding and, indeed, authentic exploration of religion and the metaphysical. After all, how can one really inhabit the sacral heart of religious belief if one has, from the outset, detached oneself from the validity of its truth claims? In RE it has become normal to reject the heart of the religious instinct precisely in the name of better grasping it. It is the equivalent of teaching students about football by giving them the rules of rugby.
The outcome is that RE either becomes the loose conglomeration of trite clichés that fail to connect with students on anything like a personal or experiential level, or else turns into a self-consciously (though false) philosophical approach which fetishizes the act of thinking whilst being negligent in the duty to develop thought. Which is why RE has the tendency to oscillate between feel-good touchy-feely slogans or beard-stroking sessions designed to inflate the ego more than the intellect. 
Some RE teachers genuinely think that in pursuing this approach, within these secular paradigms, they are opening minds, precisely by encouraging their charges to abandon (or sideline) any relational or intellectual context within which they may embed understand of the complex themes that decent RE teaching must necessarily tackle head on. Where this occurs, we hear the buzzwords of intellectual superiority that has followed the secularist approach round ever since those with many letters after their name decided to teach those without many letters after their name that this was what all clever people thought. 
We hear words like ‘critical’, and ‘analysis’, and ‘evaluation’, but the very foundation upon which such activities can take place is a mere chimera, asking as it does that the student to affirm a prior rejection of what it is that that which they study demand they take existential account of. We ask students to adopt a mindset that every single one of the religions that they study would reject at the most fundamental level. If that sounds bonkers, it is because it is. 
As such, this is not the development of thought but the teaching of a sterilised skill, which in the end becomes more like a game of blind man’s buff – asking an eleven year old to walk into a classroom and choose their favourite metaphysical vantage point, on the basis of they-know-not-what-and-grasp-not-yet criteria. We might as well offer a monolingual child a selection of twelve texts written in different languages, before asking them to choose their favourite translation. Can it be any wonder that for so many children RE seems detached from real life, even though it is in RE that one ostensibly encounters those things that will shape many a life and love over the course of a lifetime.
For this reason, some argue that confessional RE still has a role to play, not to create devout soldiers of God but to facilitate precisely this critical mindset – it gives a skeletal framework upon which to grow understanding, to pin criticism, to explore complexities and develop critique, precisely by hanging on and against viewpoints already interiorised.  To do so is the difference between throwing a punch at fresh air and aiming one at a particular target. Or to put it glibly, for demonstration, the RE teacher who seeks to explain Sukkot by comparison with Harvest better be sure students grasp the depths of Harvest – and if the very language and grammar of thankfulness and fasting is alien to a student’s understanding of life, then we need to acknowledge that RE has failed to do its job, and stop asking students to answer vanity questions about which festival they prefer and why.
In short, asking that an RE teacher can teach from the inside rather than the outside, indeed that RE is initially taught from the inside rather than the outside, can have its benefits – not only does it guarantee that the teacher is a genuine specialist, but it is also a more productive and rigorous framework for critical thought than the false presumptions that currently beset RE pedagogical orthodoxy.  

Twigg and Hardworking Families

‘Liberalism is alive and it’s killing us.’ Maurice Glasman.

Teachers have long been acutely aware that schools are expected to cure the ills of the society in which they operate, whilst simultaneously being at fault for their existence in the first place. Schools, you see, are solely responsible for the development of our children, so when anything goes wrong it must be because schools have not taught x, or because they have taught y, or because they’re institutionally opposed to z, and so forth. There was a time when schools were deemed to exist in order to assist parents in the education of their children. For our political classes at least, that time has long gone  – a consensus has emerged that schools exist to actually parent our children, too.

As I pointed out a few weeks ago when Michael Gove announced his plans to further nationalise parenting, were he to receive anything like a critical analysis from his own benches then ‘small c conservatives’ would have been implacably opposed to plans to turn schools into childcare units, complete with longer days, shorter holidays, summer camps and sleepovers. They would see that Gove had once again overstepped the line between parental responsibility and state assistance, and been suspicious of the pious cries of ensuring kids ‘get a good start’ or helping families ‘juggle family life and work commitments’.  As I argued then, were this proposed a decade ago by a government of the left it would have been greeted with wild speculations as to the sinister intent of the state wishing to insert itself further into family life, inching further toward the nationalisation of parenting.

Well, Stephen Twigg, never one to knowingly oppose the substance of any Govian doctrine, has chosen to follow in his idol’s loafered wake.  For Twigg, schools are not places to educate children, but childcare facilities where children also get educated. This means that schools should be supporting families by ensuring their own organisation doesn’t make life any more difficult for the needs of their customers. So far, so tiresomely predictable – one liberal supporting the analysis of another. But in so doing, Twigg demonstrates the extent to which the current Labour crop have long given up the intellectual fight with that which they claim to oppose.

And so, in the interests of keeping the markets serviced with reliable labour, Twigg thinks the state should take on more parenting, since the demands of parenting are after all inconvenient for the employers of those who were self-absorbed enough to have had children in the first place.  In a world where people have to work longer for diminishing returns, fewer and fewer have the economic freedom to reject the call of the factory floor. Twigg’s response? Use the power of the state to ensure that any lingering impediments to that call are removed or mitigated.  

This is not the Labour tradition as I know it. Labour of old recognised the central importance of the family and looked for ways to facilitate the flourishing of it, not bypass it as an inconvenience to an employer. Indeed, Labour once criticised what it then referred to as ‘the capitalist system’ precisely in the name of defending the family from the demands of the market system. Or as one tweeter neatly put it, Twigg seeks to help ‘hardworking families’ by concentrating on the working rather than the family.
To be fair to Twigg, Labour have form on this – they have long thought helping the family is achieved by paying for parents to spend less time with it. It’s why that huge swathe of people who desperately wish they had the freedom to choose to spend time at home with their kids find little solace in Labour, entirely focused as they are on making external childcare cheaper instead.

And as with all irony, there is an element of delusion in this: Labour genuinely seem to think that in offering such a solution they are putting themselves on the side of working people. Mr Twigg says as much himself: ‘This will give all parents of primary school children the certainty that they can access childcare from 8am-6pm through their school. A clear message to hard working parents: Labour is on your side.’ Unless, of course, those hardworking parents happen to wish they didn’t have to work so bloody hard and miss their children growing up as a consequence. Indeed, the mournful lament of parents wishing they could spend less time with family and more time at work is all one hears at the school gates. Well, drinks all round: their prayers have been answered today.

If ever there was a bogeyman capitalist, a snarling, moustachioed, pocketwatch checking factory owner who resented the existence of anything that might stop workers from being co-opted into ever longer hours on the factory floor, then that man would be sending a thank you note to Mr Twigg right now. One gets the impression that were a contemporary Bob Cratchit to complain about having to work on Christmas Day, Mr Twigg might just think the best way to support him would be to abolish Christmas.

Of course, this will matter little to Twigg – he has convinced himself that this is what will help families, trapped as he is within a liberal paradigm that sees the duties and commitments that real life brings with it as inconveniences to be overcome rather than the things that given any meaning to life whatsoever. No, freedom is the freedom to work, which means freedom from any obstacle to doing so, to becoming a productive economic unit, to helping Britain get ‘back on track’.  And those staff, most likely low paid, who will end up staffing the school during the extended opening hours, seeing less of their own family as a result, are collateral to that – but then, Labour has long become comfortable in using the low paid to service its liberalism.
And so we have it, that on the same day that Ed Miliband announced that his vision of education is the precise opposite of Michael Gove’s, Stephen Twigg issues details of a speech whereby he not only embraces a Govian policy of his own, but accepts wholesale the analysis to which it is a response. A Tory Education Secretary that wishes to further nationalise parenting sharing an analysis and a proposed solution with a Labour shadow Education Secretary that wants to put the demands of market over the demands of loved ones.

And they say they’re all the same, eh?

Postliberal Paralysis

Reading through David Goodhart’s recent Standpoint article the other day, an old irony lying at the heart of the postliberal impulse presented itself once more – those who represent the views of a great number all too often find themselves presented as extreme and outside the mainstream.

When Goodhart decided to turn his critical eye on the assumptions that lay behind the support of mass immigration, he would have had the instinctive support of many a Labour voter – and yet he acted as a lone wolf, a cry in the wilderness provoking a reaction that would have (and often did) encourage many other a sceptic to keep their head down. 

All of which gives the impression that any challenge to the liberal establishment is itself the action of either a defunct intellect or a defunct soul. And so, years since this (still-)emerging critique of liberalism began to find expression (I’d go back generations, but for the sake of argument…), there yet exists no discernible outlet for its expression beyond the courage of the few who are granted a (usually hostile) audience. Those who take on the mantle of agitating against the zeitgeist mostly find themselves calling out to a loose and anonymous coalition of the aggrieved. And with it another irony: a group of folk who instinctively cherish institutions have proven useless at reclaiming and, more pressingly, generating them.

Which means that for those who find postliberalism articulating something close to their own concerns, there are no discernible structures through which to channel their energy – no mere coincidence, then, that postliberalism often identifies with and shares the assumptions and concerns of precisely that group of people who have long abandoned politics in despair. Zeal of the converted wasted, resilience of the believer squandered.

And so postliberalism loses its relational edge, possessing no formal organ (for it is not a formal movement) for engaging or galvanising those, of many a political hue, who share their analysis. That group who instinctively appeal to the relational as an alternative account of the social and the civic yet have no wider structure to generate and facilitate relations between those of a similar mind. For any individual critical of mainstream liberal presumption, establishing connections with the similarly-minded is a minefield with real consequences for misjudging a situation and expressing a heretical opinion (small example: the amount of people I know, of both genders, who are critical of AWS yet dare not utter it publicly). Perhaps we postliberals, then, need our own version of the Ichthys. Perhaps we should look to create it.

Of course, the very nature of the postliberal outlook means that the criteria for success are somewhat different from the standard political trinkets signifying orthodox power and influence. Whilst one might become frustrated at the manner in which challenges to liberal presumption are still presented as the quirks of the mad or mean, nonetheless valuable work is taking place reconnecting with grassroots, influencing particular kinds of institutions from the ground upwards, forging relationships around a vision of what would make life better. This, understandably, stays below the media radar.

Yet higher structures and organisations are important too, from the perspective of both civic society and political calculation. After all, it is through institutions that one reaffirms an existence within, and commitment to, the civic and those initiatives designed to enhance it, as well as constructing a shelter from which to challenge lazy liberal presumption in a manner less akin to sending Daniel wandering, lonely, into the Lion’s Den. Some are cut out for that, and will reappear unharmed to influence the wider debate, but not all are, and might rediscover their voice, and their interest, in the company of the like-minded.

And so the Long March must commence, both through the institutions and, where they do not exist, through new ones. And since liberalism is at the core of the three mainstream parties, so its intellectual critique draws support from all political traditions and none. But then, that’s the nature of a movement – establishing communities of interest that unite a diverse range of folk in pursuit of a better alternatives to those currently available. All of which those who identify as postliberal instinctively understand.  Meaning that the postliberal paralysis might just be cured by putting into practice its very own insights.   

On (not) Learning to Teach

There is something of an irony in contemporary education debate, certainly the online variety, in that discussion is nearly always about skills. In as much as this is the case, the vanguard of the educational revolution often sounds very much like those they’re meant to replace, becoming devotees of an idea or method that can be transposed seamlessly from one classroom to another.  This is understandable, of course, since in a forum with representatives from every subject the common ground clearly exists on the generic skills front, and so it makes sense to discuss it. In addition, it is genuinely useful – after all, learning more about how to teach can only be a good thing, right?
Well, it depends at what price. For example, am I best developing my effectiveness by reading the latest John Hattie book, or the latest Norman Davies? Which is best for my students, that I read the latest Encyclical, or the latest article by Daniel Willingham? Does my teaching get better with debating residual scores on the latest report on the effectiveness of direct instruction, or in a detailed discussion with a specialist on the social, religious and political contexts that framed the ‘Glorious’ Revolution(/Revolt)? The answer is not straightforwardly one or the other – but in my experience, teacher debate and, crucially (I will return to this), professional development, far more often focuses on the former than the latter – at times, even at the expense of the latter.
Now, to save the hernias of the excitable who at this point feel compelled to jump up and down shouting ‘FALSE DICHOTOMY!’, I fully accept that this is not zero-sum. Equally, time is finite for the finite. And we teachers, marvellous as we are, are nonetheless finite beings. Meaning that the spare time we have can only have a certain amount fit into it. And as many will testify, this time is never enough. Some of the more thoughtful souls even make this point by tweeting pictures of all those books they still have to read, lolz.  
Still, the point remains: in spending so much energy and effort getting up to speed, and keeping up to speed, with how to teach, an essential focus on what to teach can become lost.
And this is something I have noticed. As my career has progressed, I feel I have become less and less well versed in my chosen subjects. My knowledge feels like it has become a static body comfortably regurgitated, whereas it was once an evolving and organic thing. And the main reason for this is time: I no longer have the time to develop my knowledge as I once did. And I’d wager that this is true for the vast majority of teachers. Which is fine if the subject is reasonably static, but not so much when it isn’t. And whilst this process is taking place, I tend to wonder if I’m becoming a less effective practitioner.  Spoiler: probably.
Which brings us to attitudes in education. It is perfectly right that we insist on subject specialists and subject specialism – it is also perfectly bonkers to think this is something that is completed prior to becoming a teacher, and not an ongoing process which runs alongside it. In other words, perhaps we don’t insist enough.
To pull the lens out a bit, workload issues, and the current fashion for teachers with a single-minded dedication to teaching, has meant that having outside interests is increasingly a luxury many cannot afford. It has become the norm to allow teaching to trump all other commitments one might have or wish to have (which can even include family, by the way – it’s not healthy).  Whilst such frenzied dedication might seem, on the face of it, to be A Good Thing, something essential is nonetheless lost: the ability of the teacher to bring the outside world into the classroom; to sniff out external opportunities for students that they might never come across whilst cloistered away in the teaching community; to develop their own knowledge through the pursuit of private interests and in so doing, become better teachers. On a personal level, opportunities that I could (and did) provide when I first entered teaching have disappeared with those networks which fell by the wayside precisely because of the all-consuming nature of the job – is this better?
This can easily be viewed, of course, as a tad indulgent – one can immediately see the relevance of reading the latest research on peer assessment, but attend a lecture on English Jacobitism? You’re having a laugh. That is something that you should be doing in your private time. Only…
And so we complete the circle, with both time and fashion making it increasingly difficult to be the rounded professionals, indeed rounded people, which the best teachers must surely be. Perhaps, then, during our holidays we should take a break from learning how to teach, and go do other non-teaching things. It might just make us better teachers. 

Education, Twitter and the Herd Mentality

During my teacher training, Twitter proved an essential tonic. Sat at the back of the latest class in which some daft idea was ‘offered’ (I’ll keep it vague because, seriously, we do not have the time), I knew that I only needed to retreat to the digital community I had discovered through Twitter to be reminded that my doubts and objections were shared by a whole host of other teachers. And not just some digital rump of eccentrics (though that too), but dynamic, high quality professionals.

And so the lectures became bearable. Being a sceptic alone in a crowd is one thing – being supported with the arguments, language, data, evidence and anecdotes of a whole group who share that scepticism is quite another. And so the features of the teaching landscape became clearer and there stood I, keyboard at the ready, mockingly dismissing VAK, and NLP, and Brain Gym, and myriad other fashions as being the unmistakable marks of an educational regressive. If I’m honest this probably filled me with a sense of superiority (did I mention how high quality, dynamic and professional those on ‘my side’ seemed to be?), and more than once I guffawed at the apparent herd mentality of those on the trendy side of the teaching divide.

Now this is an important bit: I haven’t changed my views on those issues one tiny bit. If anything they have become more entrenched.

Now we have that out of the way (that I felt the need to say it will hopefully come to prove my argument), I can proceed with my main point, which is this: the iconoclasts have become icons. The non-conformists remarkably conformist. The radicals have become…. you get the idea.  

In other words, what started out as a loose band of folk seeking to challenge some of the dafter ideas permeating the education debate, has since become a remarkably homogenous tribe in itself which in many ways emulates that which it sought to replace. It used to be all about independent, critical, evidenced thought, and for many it no doubt still is – but it has outgrown its original brief and has come to resemble something more akin to a culture war. Which I suppose is fine, so far as it remains authentic. Grown around it, however, is a whole grammar of thought and debate which is becoming every bit as conformist, intolerant, credulous and quite frankly repetitive as that edifice which it sought to haul down.

This is not to say that the more mischievous, and weary, side of me is not still engaged by the debates taking place – hear that? He used ‘engage’, oh my God, that’s weasel word number 1! What a loser!  – but it can also be tiresome. If we’re going to insist ideas stand or fall by their merits, then discussion has to remain about ideas. Scanning through the Twitter timelines it seems the emphasis has become lost amongst a scrabble to retweet with scorn anyone who happens to use a proscribed word or show even the slightest glimmer of possibly, in some sense, now and again and in certain circumstances, depending on context, be mildly sympathetic to something which seems to be connected with an idea that has been defined as progressive. All too often it’s not about substance but catchphrase. It has turned tribal, with an incredible readiness to denounce, primarily (or so it seems to me) in order to assert one’s own ‘new traditionalist’ credentials.

I must, at this point, say two things. 1) I’m not thinking of any one individual in particular when I write this, and 2) I’m as guilty as anybody else. But it’s something of which I’m becoming increasingly aware. And increasingly penitent.  

Tories, conservatives and Gove

“We are not going to solve our problems with bigger government. We are going to solve our problems with a stronger society. Stronger families. Stronger communities. A stronger country. All by rebuilding responsibility. We have got to stop treating children like adults and adults like children. It is about everyone taking responsibility.
“The more we as a society do, the less we will need government to do. We will have to tear down Labour’s big government bureaucracy — ripping up its time-wasting, money-draining, responsibility-sapping nonsense.”

That from a speech by David Cameron in 2011, trying to reach out to those in his party, and out of it, who cling to traditional conservative instincts regarding the role of the state and the role of the individual.

And the words had power. The very presence of Blue Labour testify to that. For many, Labour had become statist, authoritarian, and were too often an obstacle to a family trying to get on in life, poking in their nose where it was neither welcome nor needed and often making things worse in the process. The Broken Society was real – it was the State, and its leeching of responsibility from individuals, which had caused it.

Indeed, often there was a more sinister edge to the analysis. Since people had lost trust in the state, so they had also lost trust in its motives, meaning that any move to insert the state into realms traditionally belonging to the individual or the family were treated with a mixture of suspicion and derision. As such, if Labour had ever suggested that schools open earlier, and close later, and have shorter holidays, and hold summer camps, and even offer sleepovers for children, then we could have expected to be greeted with cries of derision and uncharitable suggestions as to why the Labour government wishes to insert itself as surrogate parent to the nation’s children.

And yet, today, this is exactly what the Department of Education is proposing. And outrage/derision/mockery/suspicion came there none.

Why? Well, because the DfE is Michael Gove’s gig, and Tories tend to suspend all critical judgment when it comes to Michael Gove, primarily because they (wrongly) see him as a Burkean hero slaying the forces of Leftism with his sword of righteous radicalism. For them, what Gove says and what Gove does must necessarily be right, primarily because of whom it appears to upset. If they spent more than five minutes actually considering what Gove says and what Gove does, they would see that quite often it is they themselves who are out of tune with his political instincts.

And so, with an appeal to making being a parent fit more conveniently around working hours and a busy modern life, so the Tories propose to insert the state far more intimately into family life than Labour ever did. And those that call themselves Tory either stay silent or cheer wildly, convinced that he who pulls the rug from under the feet of their intellectual tradition is actually one of their own.

Gove – a price worth paying?

Michael Gove. Elicits strong reactions that name. From both hysterical anti-reform types as well from uncritical disciples of the #cultofGove

My own reaction? More a shrug of the shoulders with the odd outburst thrown in. He’s a mixed legacy. And I suspect history will judge him the same. His greatest success has been in convincing people that his sole mission is to raise standards, and that all his reforms have this ultimate goal in mind.

Personally, I don’t buy that line. I think some of his reforms have little to do with raising standards, and will in the long run prove corrosive. And intellectual curiosity, if nothing else, must lead one to question why so much of this structural change, to raise standards natch, seems to fit so very snugly with neo-Thatcherite politics.

Still, one is compelled to ask the question: so what?

For all that I think Gove gets wrong, he nonetheless is trying to get some things right. Initiating a full and frank exchange on our degraded curriculum, pointing out the injustice of grade inflation, rehabilitating the view that knowing stuff is important for its own sake (a view not shared by all his cult devotees): these strike me as of fundamental importance. Which means that one must at least consider whether endurance of the stuff that he gets wrong is not a price worth paying.

There will come a time when some future government will have to put right the damage wrought by certain of Gove’s actions. There is little doubt about it. Nonetheless, if that is the immediate price for developing a better curriculum and shaping a more rigorous learning culture, then is it not worth it?

Some will clearly believe not and will bray at the very suggestion. Angrily. Before hurling abuse at any who dare suggest otherwise. Myself? I’m not so sure. I want change. Some of the change that I want to see is similar to the change that Gove wants to see. In that sense, for those of a like mind, Gove is less a embodiment of the diabolical and more a potential ally.

Meaning that either I, or he, is a useful idiot. Suppose you’ll have to decide for yourself.

Private Privilege

One often hears the refrain that state schools should be more like private schools if they are to generate success. And not just from the usual ill-informed cliché peddlers: it resides within the presumptions and pronunciations of all too many at the very top, too. Of course, when we hear that the local comprehensive should be more like private schools, this rarely means that plans are afoot to fund smaller class sizes, or build better facilities, or give staff and students longer holidays – no, it usually means something else, something fleeting, will-o’-the-wisp, but nonetheless relating, in some ill-defined fashion, to the educational milieu within which our students are nurtured. And in so much that that shifting concept expresses an aspiration for something different, something better, then for all its ambiguity it nonetheless has a kernel of truth to it.

Declaration of interest: I was lucky enough to attend a private school for a year or so at the age of eight. It was an MoD funded placement given, or so I was told, to offer stability after years of moving around and multiple school changes. (I should say from the outset, to preempt the lazy assumptions of all too many, that my Dad was a corporal, and of the four of us that I remember starting that year, none of our fathers were officers. Sad to say it, but if they were, we wouldn’t have been hanging around together.)

And I shall never cease to be grateful for this opportunity. It changed everything.

For example, it was at this school that I first had my ears opened to classical music, bombarding the senses as we all filed into church on a Saturday morning for an unapologetically high church service. It was here that I first sang in a choir, an assemblage of students of all ages, itself increasingly unusual, all of us singing (and reading) the complex and beautiful choral music that has stayed with me to this day. The church where we sang was a beautiful if slightly higgledy-piggledy-in-a-very-English-rural-church-kind-of-way affair, set amidst what appeared to a nostalgic mind to be the deepest forest (it wasn’t), with a little gravel path wandering up to a welcoming stone porch with an offset wooden door, framed by a humorously grand pair of faux-gothic columns.

It was also at this school that I sailed my first dinghy (the school having its own lakes) and went on my first camp (we were all enrolled in clubs – I took Beavers. Once put someone in the recovery position in 9 seconds. I’m still owed a Mars Bar by Mr [x] for that). It was here that I read my first full novel and wrote my first poem. It was here that I experienced my first art gallery, attended my first theatre performance, and first found my love for History – I vividly remember a trip to Hampton Court Palace, listening open-mouthed as the guide explained the legends of the Haunted Corridor, and the symbolism of the great Tapestries, and the intrigue and downfall surrounding Cardinal Wolsey.

It was here that I first experienced the Latin language, and learned of Greek gods, and studied Roman generals. It was here I first played hockey, and rugby, and American football, and archery, and even horse riding (alright, I exaggerate a touch on that one – I didn’t do it. But a couple of my mates in House did. Never fancied it, to be honest). It was here I learned to play chess, and draw in 3D, and (help) organise charity events, and put on public performances, and deal with (a very old school) male teacher, a thing foreign to me up until that point and a genuine source of anxiety before I joined, all the teachers I had ever experienced being female.

And all of that in just one year.

Yet it went far beyond the standard curriculum. It was also here that I was taught many disciplines that stay with me still, little things that we could never expect a state school to attempt: how to polish my shoes properly, and tie my tie correctly, and organise my belongings and possessions. In addition, the curriculum was not just about pursuit of the humanities and sciences: we boys learned skills necessary to complete general DIY tasks, and we were also taught to sew, since it was fully expected that as time went by it was not for the sewing lady (a lovely, kindly old woman whom I only ever saw sat down in her sewing chair) to fix our school clothes, but for us to see to it ourselves. In other words, the academic was situated within a wider framework of values which brought it into a coherent whole – of thrift, self-sufficiency, and pride in oneself.

The school, it should also be said, was set in beautiful grounds with woods and lakes, where we wiled away hours on end climbing trees and ‘making dens’ waiting for the bell to be rung for tea (this being after the homework hour in house, obviously). In addition, the school contained within it a magnificent country house (Georgian, or thereabouts), which was still used by the elder students in school as halls of residence, and around which we had numerous tours to learn about not only the families that had lived there, but also the meaning and provenance of the architecture on display.

In other words, this kid who had lived his life on army camps, and who would spend the rest of his school years in a council house in the north east, was exposed to high culture. And not only exposed to it, but completely immersed in it, day after day, as the backdrop and foreground within which our development took place. Here, aesthetics was not a cerebral pursuit for ageing dons – it permeated everything, and infused us with a sense of awe and humility that forced the eyes, even the soul, to look upwards in its educational pursuits. We were encouraged to reach for the stars, not future salary scales.

Why is this no doubt rose-tinted recounting of a single year of my schooling relevant?

Well, for me, it is precisely this that divides private education from state – this exposure to high culture, this instinctive commitment to and formation within a higher aesthetic. I’m well aware how pompous that might sound: I do not possess the words to explain it any other way. Nonetheless, I think it is true. And it can only ever be a source of disappointment that in having such experiences I was the lucky one, the unusual one, the one who should be grateful for such a start in life but who cannot seriously expect that others of a similar background could realistically all experience the same.

But, why not? Well, resources and money is a factor that cannot be overcome here, even though I do not seriously expect anything ever to be done about that. But it also goes a little deeper. In truth, the real tragedy is that all too many teachers in the state sector not only show an ignorance of this high culture (I readily confess to my own ignorance, too), but also display an overt hostility toward it. It is bad enough that so very few of our students in the comprehensive system get to experience the cultural and intellectual treasures passed on as a matter of course within parts of the private sector – it is lamentable that this can occasionally be because of the hangup of the teacher, rather than the (equally wrong, yet mostly ignored) inequalities of the system we have created.

Doubt me? Try saying comprehensive kids should be able to learn Latin in school and see what response you get.

I must say, in closing, that for all the evident admiration I have for the education I received at my private school, this does not mean that all aspects of it were superior. From what I recall, the classroom behaviour was much worse than any state comprehensive I’ve ever taught in, certainly worse than any I had attended, and bullying was a serious problem for some poor, unfortunate souls. I also firmly believe, so far as my memory serves me well, that the teaching was not as good as that in the state school I attended immediately after it, even if the curriculum was much more entertaining and challenging.

Still, as vital great teaching is and great teachers are, one cannot help but feel that that until we naturally and routinely raise our sights and try to capture those higher aesthetic ideals, to embed them within our schools and the culture we shape within them, then our kids in comprehensives, for all their high grades and multiple certificates, will remain culturally poorer than their more privileged peers.

Education and Social Mobility

The good news is that we now know more about the pupil-level strategies that will close the social class gap. The challenge is to make sure they are used in the classroom.’ Estelle Morris, MP

Schools should be engines of social mobility, places where the democratisation of knowledge helps vanquish the accidents of birth.’ Michael Gove, MP

‘It [a more dynamic society] is the impulse that lies behind our education reforms, including the pupil premium. Education is critical to our hopes of a fairer society.’ Nick Clegg, MP

To which I reply: b*ll*cks, basically. Education is not about social mobility. I mean, it can also have that happy consequence, of course, but that is not what it fundamentally is about. Nor, indeed, is that what it is fundamentally for.

And thank goodness for that, quite frankly. As I will explain.

But to start with, the point is that too much of the modern hand-wringing approach toward education gets this wrong. Really wrong. Since education has long since become a Royal Rumble for the CHECK OUT HOW CONCERNED I AM ABOUT THE POOR crew, so the aim of helping the poor be clever enough to get a job that means they are no longer poor appears to have become this week’s educational Nirvana

Govian revolutionaries are particularly good at this, and very much resemble the liberal left when they do so (no surprise there). Determined to display their compassionate credentials, they commandeer the moral outrage of the firebrand to present their reforms as self-evidently enlightened because self-evidently about helping-poor-people-actually-get-a-job-more-like-ours-for-a-change. The intellectual furnaces from which this framework is forged are not much into the pursuit of intellect for the sake of human flourishing and expression – no, it’s about social mobility. Or, about getting a better job. Or, having whatever it is that your future employers might want you to have.

Call me a desperate romantic, but I rather fancy that somewhere, both John Keating and Crocker-Harris are crying. On one another’s shoulder. Whilst reading Browning.

And so one begins to whiff the rotting carcus of Education, now little more than a host for the parasitical feasting of a legion of wonkeries telling us all how to make sure our kids are more employable. Education herself, once the goddess we worshiped and adored as life giving and realising, has been subjugated by the new god Money, and the maximization of our chances of being able to accumulate it.

What use within a marketised utilitarianism for appeals to refinement of intellect? Once we justify education through appeal to future life outcomes, we retreat from the front line and spend the rest of our lives desperately trying to convince our victors why our kids should not just be learning whatever it is that we finally decide 21st century skills happen to be. Or, to quote: ‘Overcoming educational inequality is a huge challenge. However, we know the cost of doing nothing. It’s bad for social mobility and ultimately bad for Britain’s economy.’ Take a bow, Mr Twigg.

Dear Lord, Spare me the cold utility of the educationalist who wishes to justify intellectual aggrandizement with a costs benefits analysis of future earning potential. Amen.

Schubert? Blake? van Gogh? Died in poverty. Cry me a river. Clearly failed by the system. Don’t know how their teachers sleep at night.

So, we have the order of the day: let’s help poorer kids get clever because then they can all be richer than they would otherwise have been. Which means they’ll be more socially mobile. Which means the country will make more money. Which is what education is all about, n’est-ce pas? The demands of the market are uppermost, but the new morality is about helping the poorest cope more effectively with those demands. And if you think this will not percolate down to what we decide it is that they need to know, then I have some fresh air in a bottle here at just £5 a go – interested?

As such, the cold logic of the market utilitarian frames the education debate, and those who would argue that kids should study Latin or theology are destined to lose. Not that they won’t sometimes be agreed with – the revolutionaries will often say they should have such opportunities because their more socially mobile peers do – but they cannot really give good reasons why. Which means they will not try especially hard to ensure it happens. Which is also why, for a great many, it won’t. Funnily enough, the culture in which those socially mobile peers operate very much know why. And study such subjects accordingly. But then, they don’t go on about social mobility all that much.

Which brings us to an impasse, in which those toiling against the shallow moralism of the ‘reformers’ face unfavourable odds the magnitude of which would give a Rorke’s Drift veteran the shakes. Still, in the face of the BUT WON’T YOU THINK OF THE CHILDREN (NARROWLY DEFINED AS THEIR FUTURE EARNING POTENTIAL) brigade, the line must be held. Education is about making everyone more clever than they previously were. It is about giving everyone the intellectual refinement to engage successfully with the world around them. It is about helping in the pursuit of the Good Life, to succeed in the art of living well. Or, for those of us for whom zeal originates within metaphysics rather than the economist’s spreadsheet, it is about using what was given to reflect on those things for which it was made: ‘God wouldn’t have given us an intellect if he didn’t want us to think straight.’

To conclude, we might as well fire a parting shot: the very notion of social mobility is deeply problematic. The original Red Tory surge saw that, just as the Blue Labour counterblast did too. That for too many this is the sole criterion upon which to advance education reform is a worry. Not least because its natural logic is to diminish standards, not build them.

So, as a teacher, you’ll forgive me for not planning into my teaching strategies to ensure the improved social mobility of those who sit before me each day. That’s not my job. My job, indeed my goal, is to help children be cleverer when they walk out the door than they were when they walked through it. I’ll let the social mobility bit take care of itself. And fire off the odd salvo in futile protest.