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The Death of Liberal Education

In our schools, right now, there are many students who spend 60% of their entire time in a classroom studying just three subjects. Come the end of the year, or perhaps already for some, this will increase, and for those deemed to be falling short there will be up to 18 lessons (perhaps even more) out of 25 spent studying just these same three subjects. The same children might also be forced encouraged to attend after school revision sessions, or marched invited to lunch time catch-up sessions, or bribed welcomed to pre-school intervention sessions, all of which will be topped off with a healthy dollop of homework for each of the three subjects.

If that sounds a little unbalanced… well, good, I’m glad, we’re clearly on the same side here. Because it is. Whilst English and Maths are the top priority, Science is also increasingly given a seat at the High Table of the curricula Elect, particularly since STEM, and our alleged lack of focus on it, became the buzzword of the Prophets of Economic Doom in recent years. In other words, we force students to spend the majority of their time doing just three subjects, whilst simultaneously puffing our chests out and bragging to the world that we offer our kids a broad, balanced, liberal arts education. Which, on paper, it might well look like we do, since we still corral kids into an unsustainably large number of exams – but peel back the surface layer and things begin to look a little different.

At school, my least favourite lessons were Science and Maths. Not the teachers, by the way, all of whom I thought were great, but the subjects. Nothing personal really, I just didn’t have all that much interest. I could do what was asked, I could get grades good enough to keep the hounds at bay, but they just didn’t inspire. History did, Geography did, English Literature did, RE did, PE did, French did (eventually) – but Science and Maths? Nah. (I know we’re not supposed to say that anymore, but nonetheless it’s true, for me as for many others). As such, I couldn’t honestly say that I would have had much of a successful time at school, by various measures, if they had forced me to sit through the equivalent of two whole days’ worth of the two things I disliked most, whilst skimping on the subjects I adored. For sanity, if for nothing else. If they had then told me that the latter would be sacrificed still further to allow more time on the former – well, I’d have thought it part of a cruel experiment designed to test the stress capacity of an already moody teenager. It would have ruined school for me. It just would have. And the pressure of trying to get good grades in the subjects I enjoyed and wished to carry further, whilst having the tables so egregiously stacked against the likelihood of doing so, would have sparked the fires of revolt.

I’m sure I’m not alone in this. Nor do I see why it should be any different for students today. Which leads to the question: why do we do it? Only, you already know the answer to that question. As soon as I mentioned the three subjects, the game had been given away. And so, with a gallic shrug and a defeated air: we do it because of OFSTED and because of league tables. Or rather, we do it to preserve ourselves and our institutions in the face of OFSTED and league tables. 5 A*s to C, with English and Maths. The End.

Of course, it is easy to look up from the coalface and curse the cowardice and question the courage of those who lead us, to shake our fists and swear that we’d do things differently. And for those who choose to pursue school leadership, maybe they will, and these experiences will help them discern the costs of sedition. But the blindingly obvious truth is our leaders are just as human as we are (no, really), trying to make rational choices in a clearly irrational situation, fighting to do the best for their school in the hopeless situation in which they are placed – faced with the external pressures that bear down upon their shoulders each day, we’d probably be liable to make precisely the same decisions. Everyone imagines themselves a hero until the time comes to be heroic. Self-preservation might not ever keep the Hollywood script writers in fruitful supply, but one can at least acknowledge the logic that it carves out a space where one can sit quietly, wait out the storm and hope for better times. In other words, we have to give SLT a break here, and cast our eyes toward the real culprit.

Change is indeed in the offing, of course, and whilst it seems the forthcoming points scheme will help mitigate some of the crazy incentives that have riddled our education system for the last few years, we can also be sure that, like every piece of tinkering that has come before it, it will have unintended consequences that will yoke schools and the teachers doing their best to operate, dignity intact, within them. Every new idea always seems better than the one it is designed to replace – that we keep on replacing them so frequently tells us something about the quality of the ideas offered as solutions, as much as the ones laid aside as old hat. And let it not be forgotten that this happened on the watch of precisely he who spoke so emphatically on the value of a liberal education. Oh how they laughed on their way to their twelfth STEM lesson of the week. 

And so there must remain a sadness: the kids who have come through this system have just one shot at this. In reality, the latest political wheeze means much more for them than it does for us. For those sitting in a Maths classroom up to seven times a week, whilst trying to get their Art or History or Geography or RE or Music or Language GCSE on just one hour a week – well, for them, this is it, this is all they have. That our Enlightened Masters thought they were changing things for the better will cut no mustard with them – they, like those before them, will have been the guinea pigs, and it is their life options that will have suffered for the experiment, they who will have to live with the consequences of that in a way that we never will. Especially those whose interests and ambitions don’t align neatly with the external incentives and prejudices that, in the name of improving education, have closed those very doors that they might have earnestly desired to walk through. 

Watching Teaching

To the eyes of those who watch over us, teachers are much more important than students. We have their sole attention, we are their singular pursuit, it is we whom they come to see. This has increased the status of teachers (if not our authority) – it has given us celebrity teachers and forensic attention on the minutiae of teaching performance, books aplenty on how to be ‘outstanding’ and cult-like status for a teaching elite.  However, this trend has also shifted focus away from where focus needs to be – the students.

As an example, underachievement very often follows lack of effort. This is not to say that all who underachieve lack effort – but those who lack effort often underachieve. I should imagine this is universal, and will forever be so. Yet so far as accountability and improving performance goes, we rarely focus on student effort, and hold the student accountable for lack of it; instead, we raise an eyebrow to the teacher and assume it was the teaching that lead to a lack of ‘engagement’. In other words, we hold the wrong person culpable, and target our interventions on them accordingly – whilst often leaving the student to drift through school showing a similar lack of engagement across the curriculum.

In a similar way, we have become accustomed to saying those who misbehave do so because they cannot access the work, instead of wondering if they have difficulty accessing the work because they misbehave. Student effort, after all, is far more important to success than differentiated worksheets – yet we seem to spend far more time differentiating worksheets than we do insisting upon, and ensuring, effort. In other words, we put the cart before horse, then castigate the horse for the cart not moving fast enough.

Yet this tendency has become so normal as to pass unnoticed. Politicians, OFSTED, SLT – all of them keep dreaming up more and more ways to monitor and shape what a teacher is doing, without taking a step back and wondering if it might actually be more effective to spend the time instead watching what the student is doing. On this, I’d be willing to bet (though I’ll happily admit I can offer no evidence to support it) that such an approach is far more common the further one descends down the school league tables. Which is no surprise, I suppose – excess monitoring of teaching and tinkering with praxis is one way for an anxious management to demonstrate to OFSTED that SOMETHING IS BEING DONE!! about poor performance (of teachers, that is – the implicit assumption being that the failure must primarily be theirs). Still, it would also mean that top schools come at it from the other direction – a focus on what the student does, and getting them to do it better, and holding them to account when they do not. If this is a pathway to success, then it would in fairness be a bold one to take in an environment where OFSTED wants to see evidence of how a school is improving teaching and learning – by which it means improving what the teachers are doing. And assessing the capacity and strength of leadership by how effectively they watch and intervene in what teachers are doing.

I should add, I’m not saying that the teacher is not involved in this process – it is of course our job to ensure students learn and to intervene when they do not. If we do not intervene then we are culpable. I’m also not saying teachers shouldn’t try to get better and be encouraged and supported in doing so – which includes constructive criticism where required. But nonetheless we must constantly assert the truth that when a student chooses not to work hard and try to succeed in class, it is rarely for the lack of effort or determination or skill of the teacher. Meaning we ought to try and restore the balance, since taking away primary responsibility from the student not only neglects our duty to ensure students learn, it also sells our students a lie about life and how to succeed in the art of living it well. 

And so the paradox: maybe to improve learning we need to focus less on the teaching. Which means finding a new way to judge what happens in our schools, so that we focus more on the things that matter most. And question any habit of thought or structural processes that disincentivises our doing so.