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The Limits of Aspiration

A version of this article first appeared in the TES magazine print edition in October 2016.



Aspiration has become quite the fashion in education. It appears to be the solution to everything from social mobility to boys’ underachievement, from poor discipline to dreary school culture. And we might say that, in so far it is willing to draw distinctions between good and bad choices, it has value.

It soon gets a little more complicated, however. Because as aspiration is often presented, one discerns at its heart the presumption of a certain set of outcomes, which broadly align with the goals of social mobility in general. Why else would one school announce that it aspires for all its students to enter university?

I do not intend to argue against that ambition, and I instinctively wince when I hear the suggestion that not all kids should aspire to further learning. My concern is more elsewhere: that our accounts of aspiration exclude too many, making pupils choose between occasionally contrary impulses, at times incentivising against itself whilst simultaneously denigrating that choice.

The Messiness of Life

We rarely allow to intrude into our definitions of aspiration those accounts which speak of technical or vocational flourishing; successfully attaining status within the knowledge economy is generally what counts. Whilst government figures might look at income patterns to explore changes in social mobility, it is difficult to deny that the concept also contains a cultural edge. For our politicians and our thinktanks, social mobility means being inducted into the middle-class – for the working-classes, it is the ability, often the demand, to walk away from who are you are, or at the very least where you are from.

Which means that for our children, it is the reality that you must do so, if you wish to enjoy this thing known as success. Here, perhaps, the root of that long-observed fear within working-class communities in particular, that education does not expand minds but sows prejudices, turning children against an upbringing rather than building upon it. Put simply, for a young person from certain parts of our country, pursuing the social mobility dream can feel irreconcilable with background: from accent to habit, one feels compelled to choose between the two.

But life is messier than this. Whereas as some might see a background that needs to be overcome, others might see an upbringing that made us who or what we are, a web of connections and relationships that sustain us. Virtue and sound sense might well find expression in the decision to leave home and pursue these accounts of success, but it does not exist there exclusively. For others, it can also exist in becoming a full part of that web of life and community that has maintained and sustained, that gives meaning and identity, an affirming rite of passage all the more powerful in tight-knit communities. The social mobility narrative has neglected to recognise the virtues and good fortune in precisely that upbringing which it deems students must overcome. In so doing, it creates false opposition, consigning our children to a choice between success and perceived stagnation, entrenching the notion that flourishing is only to be found when we leave, rarely when we stay.

Which can put us in a difficult position. We want our children to be successful, but if our only account of success is exclusively tied up with social mobility, and the designated pathway for achieving it, then we risk disenfranchising those who decide that the costs of pursuing such accounts are too high. Making success and rootedness a zero-sum game will only lead to alienation of the rooted, of those whom Jon Cruddas has called ‘the Settlers’ in contemporary society, calling into question the value, and dignity, of their own shot at the good life. It feels instinctively unwise to set the price of aspiration as something seemingly in conflict with those virtues embodied in the decisions of those who choose other paths – family, friends, duties, commitments, obligations, love.

This is particularly acute when one takes physical geography into account, the issue which really does confound the meritocratic ideal by introducing a variable which is much harder to circumvent. It might be straightforward if you live in a big city or within easy range of a good university, but if you’re from (say) Workington, how do you become ‘socially mobile’ without first leaving all your family and friends behind? The nearest Russell Group university is 100 miles away: might social mobility, and the esteemed universities deemed most likely to deliver it, be as much about physical geography as it is a deficiency in the virtue of aspiration?

Entering the professions presents the student with a similar dilemma, whilst practising within them might render you better off elsewhere, too. Factor in the debt (which, despite people pointing at graphs and insisting otherwise, really does influence the decision-making of the working-class), and the living costs: if some decide this too high a price, are we to decide they simply lack aspiration?

Which leads to the question: have we painted ourselves into a corner where aspiration, and by extension social mobility, are for too many deemed antithetical to their background and upbringing and the human relationships which reside there? And if we have, then are we really happy with that?

All things considered, maybe we should be less surprised if a cohort decide that the orthodoxies of ‘aspiration’ aren’t for them, and by extension the academic pathways that they have been lead to believe are irrevocably tied up with it. Not because they are not aspirational, but because the way that term is configured in educational discourse leaves untouched their own accounts of flourishing. Because of this, maybe we should concern ourselves less with defining the pathways of aspiration, and worry more about our core aim – to deliver excellent education to all, and to make all believe that it really is important for them, whatever future paths they choose.

The Caveat

And yet…

I live in an area that might be considered prime target for those pious lectures from chief inspectors and politicians being fabulously successful down in London with all the advantages that come with it – the provinces, if you will. I am animated by a desire to expand horizons and bring a world into the classroom the better to convince the kids within it that it is worthy of exploration. I try to challenge insularity and lack of intellectual curiosity, and was quietly delighted when some of our students entered into top universities this year. I have come across students who genuinely do not see the allure of visiting Rome, or watching theatre, or appreciating art, and it leaves me disheartened. It is a lamentable fact that lack of access can lead to lack of interest, and lack of interest can lead to refusal to access. Yet the fundamentals of a good education require us to overcome that, to persists in trying to show our students why these things matter. In other words, something in the aspiration vision does indeed chime, even if (for me) it is not quite what its adherents generally think it to be.

Whilst conceding the point, we must nonetheless remain alert to arguments that go too far in the opposite direction. For example, the claim that aspiration and social mobility is just middle-class imperialism, followed by the argument, no doubt well-meaning, that we shouldn’t impose middle-class normativity on to working-class kids and judge them deficient for not having met the ambitions and values of a different social class.

Whilst there may be the grain of benign instinct buried away here – it at least acknowledges that we need to think about different social realities and not just insist we can bootstrap folk out of their origins – it nonetheless patronises. Why would we want to tell working class kids they needn’t worry about doing the kind of things some middle-class people do, when our real concern is them not having to shed heritage and identity as an entrance fee?

This is where the danger lies. Entwining aspiration solely with university can and does convince some that education is only valuable or worth persevering with if your life decisions align with that view of post-school life. Don’t want to be a doctor? Prefer to be a mechanic? Fine. But that doesn’t mean you shouldn’t learn your Shakespeare or know your Windrush. The moment we tell ourselves that it does – the moment we assign aspiration and education excellence to a particular pathway – is the moment we deny our children their shared rights and privileges of a cultural inheritance.

This is why our configuration of education around aspiration might need to be detached from professional outcome – not because aspiration is a middle-class thing, but because in tying it to a certain pathway we have decided that it can never be a working-class thing. The result? A disjointed philosophy which divides students between the practical and the scholarly, bustling them off into the vocational or the academic, according to which aspect of the market they might best serve.

It cannot be emphasised enough that this is a modern ruse. An educated, articulate and learned working-class is not at all a contradiction in terms. Our history, and no less our cultural heritage, screams this at us. It might be tempting to assign openness to scholarship as the product of a more enlightened era when education was seen as food for the soul, though perhaps that is to sentimentalise what was as likely to be the interplay of pragmatism and ingrained wisdom – it is through education that we best resist oppression, through education that we best discern and assert our interests, through education that we give ourselves the best chance of succeeding in the art of living well.

Working-class kids want to study for a degree? Brilliant. All the better. But they should not have to leave who they are and where they are from behind at matriculation. Nor have ingrained into them the insidious belief that those who chose otherwise – those back home – are somehow failing in life.

That we have come to accept otherwise can only be the consequence a utilitarian estimation of education: if some kids work well with their hands, why do they need their heads? Why aspire? And all the while, a group of middle-class pupils corralled toward university, regardless, as aspiration fails to present itself in any other socially acceptable form.

Inclusive Aspiration

The opposite to aspiration is not and need not be stagnation, and yet we seem to have made it so. In so doing, we unwittingly reaffirm the idea that a good education is for those who seek to follow that pathway into undergraduate study and beyond, and not really for anybody else. But the price of pursuing that vision remains high enough – with both economic and human costs – that some decide the normative routes are not for them. This is not because they are not aspirational, but because their aspiration expresses itself in ways more closely aligned to their values and obligations, duties and desires. In short: if given a choice between abstract ideas of success and social mobility on the one hand, and concrete realities of rootedness and (hopefully) flourishing on the other, some choose the latter of the two. Not every bond is a tie that binds – some become the ladders that help us soar.

And so the questions present themselves: what do we have to offer these children beyond a disappointed sigh and sometimes a sneer? Can we rescue working-class culture from the clutches of those who think it is only ever something that must be abandoned or overcome? How do we convince our students that an excellent education is a gift for all, wherever your ambitions lie?

Either way, it seems to me important that we do. Lest we continue to scratch our heads and wonder why so many of those who sit before us continue to feel uninspired, alienated, by what we offer, by what we say, and by what we tell them they should aspire toward.


Teachers on Treadmills

Playing the Good Game

I used to love football as a kid. The camaraderie was a key part of it, of course, but I also genuinely enjoyed the technical aspect of the game: I learned my craft through endless rounds of heads and volleys, of one-man knockout, of ‘wall-y’, of kick-ups and curby, of round-the-world and, of course, during games with my mates at the weekends. Having a kickabout, trying new stuff, getting better, getting stuff wrong and it not being the end of the world.

When I left school at 16, I left home and signed for Norwich City. Within a year, I hated football. No longer could I simply enjoy: everything was about improvement. About getting better. About doing things differently. About analysing the minutiae of performance and never quite being satisfied with this aspect, or that outcome, about examining this, reflecting on that, getting better. And always high-stakes. I was captain of the U19s from the age of 17 onward, but the added responsibility made little difference: football had become a technocratic process, leached of the very thing that, for me, ever gave it sparkle. Or put another way, one could no longer savour and enjoy the very thing that first inspired my commitment to the game: it had now become little but an endless process of CPD.

Of course, some thrived in that environment, and a few of my team mates from those days have gone on to have successful careers. But many more didn’t. And, to cede the point, maybe we can agree that that is how it should be in an elitist environment: football can afford to have tremendously high attrition rates, since supply vastly outstrips the demand. Football, in other words, can afford to be picky, to risk losing some gems, in the name of improving its stock.

But not every employment sector has that luxury.

Talking a Good Game

There is a tribe of educationalists who have discovered that issuing pious platitudes and talking tough about education can do wonders for career advancement. They have chosen the broad path: elevating easy analyses to the universal whilst ignoring contextual details consigns them to forever fail at bringing about the transformation they desire. Cries of sanctimony, of moral judgment, might impress rightly-concerned outsiders, but it rarely acts as a magic wand for reality.

One conduit for this tough-talking has been the transformation of the term ‘professionalism’, which now acts as a kind of educational Sorting Hat for those of a particular mindset, a particular educational philosophy, wherein doing your job well is not really what matters, so much as doing it a certain way, and from within the realms of a certain educational perspective. Armed with weak analogies and apparent status-anxiety, they seem to want teaching to imitate the rest of the ‘professions’: slick suits and industry jargon, research papers and data analyses, and a constant focus on improving practice, improving procedure, improving outcome.

And in this, they’re not entirely wrong. But they’re not entirely right, either.

Being Good Enough

Placing oneself on an endless treadmill of reflection and improvement is exhausting. Having no time to stop, to rest, to consolidate, is exhausting. Always being never quite as good as one could possibly be is exhausting. There is a sort of spiritual violence in being convinced that, wherever you’re at, whatever you’re doing, you could (for which read ‘should’) be doing it better. And at times that can cut deep.

Some people might thrive off that – indeed, they might even make a decent career telling everyone else that they, too, should thrive off that, just like they do. And that they should be undertaking CPD in their evenings, their weekends, goodness, even during their maternity leave. Because, we are told, that’s what good teachers, professionals, do.

But here’s the thing we must always remember, for our sanity as much as any shred of work-life balance – most good teachers, and many of the best, really don’t do that. Or, perhaps more accurately, most do some of the time, but at others are quite happy just getting through. Just managing. Just doing enough.

This is not a spiritual or moral or professional failing: it is real life. Sometimes we feel on top of our work, expansive, ready to learn new things, take on new projects. Sometimes we don’t. Or sometimes we can’t, because just getting through to the end of each day is a struggle.

Getting through to the end of each day. Intact. Our results broadly on track. At some point, we are going to have to recognise the value in that, and stop treating it as a minimum and barely-worthy-of-recognition expectation, rather than the important achievement it really is.

Because as things stand, it really is an important, if increasingly difficult, achievement. And the sense of gratitude that should flow from it from those who benefit, much like the sense of pride that should flow from it from those who deliver, is not helped by driving a culture in which one always harbours the feeling that it could, should, must be better. And that failing to be perpetually devoted to this act of self-flagellation is a weakness, a failing, a lack of professionalism.

Of course it could be better. All know that. But sometimes it is good enough. And sometimes, good enough should mean precisely that. Or else more and more folk might well decide that, by the rules of the game, they can never be good enough, or, worse still, are not prepared to be.


The Ordinary Teacher

The Myth of Maximal Efficiency 

The Dignity of Being a Teacher

The NeoTraddie Revolution




Blue Labour Manchester – Panel Outlines

Since 2009, Blue Labour has been exploring and detailing the growing disconnect between the Labour Party and those whom it has traditionally sought to represent. At its heart has remained a consistent, core insight: an all-out embrace of liberalism, both social and economic, has alienated the Labour Party from its traditional working-class support. This conference aims to further explore those key insights, discerning where common cause might be found beyond the confines of current party orthodoxies, assisting the Labour Party in once again becoming a broad coalition of diverse interests and aims.

Tickets for this event are available here: https://www.eventbrite.co.uk/e/blue-labour-forging-a-new-politics-tickets-28306180548




Panel 1: Who are the postliberals?

For its advocates, to be ‘postliberal’ is a very different thing from being ‘anti-liberal’. Whereas the latter might seek to employ authoritarian politics to roll back the social change of previous decades, postliberals would instead pre to embrace where and who we are and think instead of how we shape the future. Quite what this future ought to look like elicits honest and constructive debate, though one common theme emerges: to be postliberal is to seek to re-root politics in traditions of mutualist thought over and above the contract-liberalism of contemporary society and its embrace of negative liberty. For this reason, postliberalism claims to build upon positive accounts of freedom, seeking to rehabilitate notions of tradition, reciprocity, rootedness, mutuality, sacrifice and service into our political discourse, and to recover the language of the particular over the exclusively theoretical and universal.

Though not all postliberal thought sits here. For some, the advance of postliberalism signifies a moving beyond the restrictive dogma of contemporary liberal thought and its current draconian instincts: a liberal culture that has embraced authoritarianism as the gatekeeper of its creeds. Whilst postliberals of a different hue might argue that this is precisely what accounts of negative liberty require, others might instead suggest that postliberalism entails a new loosening of the chains, both intellectual and formal, against a creaking liberal order finding itself exposed by the unresolved tensions of its own accounts of liberty. It is here, then, that the postliberal moment can find its expression, in articulating new accounts of the relationship between individual, society and state.

In this discussion, panellists will explore the meaning of the term postliberal, explore the question of to whom the term applies, and consider ways in which postliberal thought might offer valuable insights for political thought and policy-making.


Panel 2: Treasures of the Left?

Following an edict of persecution, St. Laurence was instructed by a Roman prefect to bring forth the treasures of the Church. In response, he rounded up the poor and marginalised, the alienated and dispossessed, and presented them to his Imperial antagonist. For such impudence Laurence would forfeit his life, but he was making something clear: our value rests with how we treat and cherish the least amongst us.

Today, Labour finds itself at odds with those communities that might be characterised as the alienated and dispossessed of today. Be it mild embarrassment from the knowing ‘centrist’ or the full-throated denunciation of an activist class ill-at-ease with the values of the communities they purport to represent, Labour has too often failed to appreciate the working-class as a jewel in the crown of our collective movement, but instead as the “awkward squad” to whom we must occasionally pander for reasons of electoral viability. Whilst not wishing to sentimentalise or lionise the class identity of the poorest, we have nonetheless found ourselves in consistent antagonism with it.

The fallout for Labour has been punishing. Whilst some blame the party’s embrace of liberalism, others would suggest that the alienation is economic as much as cultural, and almost certainly educational, with sharp value divides coalescing around level of educational attainment. Whilst some, post-referendum, would use this to suggest that those without degrees are the problem, with their (broadly) socially conservative outlook, still others respond that perhaps it is people with degrees that are the problem, and their (broadly) liberal, cosmopolitan outlook.

This neatly encapsulates the central tension: a culture clash has emerged, and it pits the party against its traditional supporters. The values of community solidarity that have stood firm in traditional working class communities for centuries, and which have flourished in stable neighbourhoods where people know their neighbours and live close to extended family, struggle to reconcile with the progressive, liberal, diverse, university educated, urbane class that runs the Labour party.

And so the question must be asked: how has this come to pass? And must it necessarily be so? Or might there be a ‘hermeneutic of continuity’ from within, re-uniting a tradition that always cherished the contributions of its working-class base, with one that has come to fear its voice?

This panel will explore how Labour envisions the status and role of the dispossessed and alienated in society, how it pictures their role and contribution in contemporary society, and explore concrete ways in which Labour might seek to rebuild those fractured relationships.


Panel 3: The Greatest Threat to Labour?

Labour are losing. Not only elections but, increasingly, their credibility. From a political tradition that has produced some of the finest politicians and indeed politics in recent history, we find ourselves in choppy waters. An electoral and political prominence that seemed to be guaranteed, regardless of personnel change, is showing itself to be far less resilient than many had thought. Commentators have offered a plethora of explanations as to why this might be the case, and there would be a high price on a proven analysis, complete with policy solutions.

For some, it is the economic policies of the current leadership that will prove disastrous for Labour, convincing a broadly austerity-accepting electorate that Labour cannot be trusted to govern within the newly restrained expectations of the general public. For others, Labour’s demise is primarily cultural, an all-out embrace of social and economic liberalism which has brought with it a winnowing away of the ties that once bound whole communities into an emotional attachment with the Labour movement. For others, the great danger for Labour lies in lurching toward policy defined by a set of arguments that Labour have passively accepted in a panicked desire to reconnect – particularly in the face of the UKIP surge – but which, in their view, only serve to undermine a left-wing vision of the good life. Whilst for others still, Labour’s manufactured identity crisis is itself the problem, adding unnecessary complexity to a simple problem, that being finding ways to help people overcome the obstacles to the pursuit of the good life: house prices and hospital waiting times, wages and school places, crime levels and food prices.

Maybe it is all of these. Or an intermixture of some of them. Or none of them at all, and something else entirely. Whilst Blue Labour has its own account of the emergence and roots of this problem, their analysis is by no means universally accepted, even if it is starting to find traction across a more diverse range of party opinion. Nonetheless, that we have come to accept that a problem exists, and that we must confront it, is itself an encouraging sign of progress and source of hope.

This panel will consider where the greatest threats lie for the Labour Party, explore the precise nature of those threats and the manner in which they arose, and begin to suggest possible ways in which those challenges might be addressed.


Panel 4: Can Labour Win the (Postliberal) Future?

Since her ascent to the role of Prime Minster, Theresa May has won both enemies and admirers at both ends of the political spectrum. In pitching her government programme explicitly at those feeling most alienated by political discourse of recent years, May has sought to reposition the Conservatives as a credible option to that left-behind segment of society long exasperated with the politics and policies of the political left. For a Labour Party confident that only it can advance working-class interest, this is a stinging rebuke: May’s growing popularity amongst working-class voters is proving a bitter pill to swallow. Nonetheless, some believe the reason for this growing approval is clear – politics has changed, the era of liberal dominance is at an end, and Theresa May is reaching out beyond the orthodoxies of yesteryear.

This does not elicit universal admiration, of course, and there is every reason to believe that an authentic left-wing politics would narrate this change in a more constructive way. Just as we might claim David Cameron’s ‘Big Society’ proved little more than an intellectual fig-leaf for an austerity politics, so some also see in Theresa May’s embrace of the ‘postliberal’ the same Janus-faced platitudes. It is here that Blue Labour find its voice, to claim that the left can truly own the future: that historic left-wing accounts of reciprocity, mutuality, solidarity – and indeed of the individual, the family, the markets and society – can offer a healthier One Nation politics than anything the Conservatives have to offer. Either way, many now accept that political discourse has entered a new era, even as we struggle to define exactly what it is. So the question presents itself: does Labour have the ability, or the inclination, to change with it?

In this discussion, panellists will consider what challenges are presented to Labour by the transformation of the political landscape, explore ways in which Labour might seek to respond to that transformation, and determine how well placed Labour are to flourish in this new political era.


A Letter to (those leaving) Labour

So, Corbyn wins. And lots of people are unhappy about it. We know this, because lots of people are tweeting and blogging about How Very Unhappy they are about it. Some have even taken the time to curate their tweets into mini-testimonies, kindly enunciating the precise reasons for their discontent, laced with gloomy predictions for the future. They love Labour, you see – let there be no doubt – and they can’t bear to see what is happening to it. It is surely better, then, to abandon it altogether.

And so, they leave. Noisily. With all the fanfare that can be mustered.

But the question is: why now? What makes the party so unbearable, at this precise moment, that you cannot stay? Oh I know you feel marginalised and disillusioned – so do I – but that’s normal in politics right? I mean, it’s not as if this hasn’t been going on in the Labour Party for the last couple of decades. Indeed, some of you actively cheered it. The price of ‘modernisation’, apparently.

Or maybe we could come at this from another direction: why did you not resign when the party was decimating its working-class support? Why did you not feel so strongly when traditional Labour communities were feeling so systematically ignored? Indeed, so systematically despised? Why did you value your membership over your conscience then?

What you’re feeling now, you have put others through. And many of them left, often into the arms of UKIP, abandoning the political inheritance of their forefathers in the process. The result? To further embolden those who had brought about that very alienation, to give them a free pass, thereby turning Labour into a puritanically liberal party, no longer able to reach out to that core base, nor even deem it desirable to do so.

And the results – socially, politically – have been disastrous.

Do you expect your departure to be any different? Do you expect it will bring forth a bout of reflection, of regret, of penance from those who wave you goodbye? Do you expect that reason will pierce through the groupthink and sense will suddenly dawn amongst the newly victorious? Not a bit of it. It didn’t then, and it won’t now.

And only one party benefits from that.

In other words, walking away really doesn’t help. I’m not saying I don’t understand it – we give our limited time freely, after all – but the oh-so-very-public departures have more than just a whiff of showboating about them. To the outside, it looks like a group of people who hollowed out our party are flouncing off now that their own dominance is under attack. Unfair? Well, prove otherwise. With actions, not words.

We can all beat our chests and mournfully declare the party is going the wrong way, that we’ll never win an election, that the future holds nothing but defeat and despair. Which may well be true. But that likelihood takes on the character of certainty once we all walk away from it. Besides, you helped create this mess; you have a responsibility to stick around and fix it.

Or leave. But save me the pious speeches as you slip out of the exit door.

Should Catholics want more Catholic schools?

This article appeared on the Catholic Herald website in September 2016. Read it here.

For all we are told about Theresa May’s cautious nature, her recent approach to education certainly has the air of the renegade about it. Forthcoming Tory plans for our schools have a little bit for everyone to be either angry or enamoured by, with the possible return of grammar schools making the early running in the Look At How Very Outraged I Am education debate.

Still, buried away in the same legislative package is a proposal to lift the grossly unfair cap on admissions for faith-based free schools, a policy that had led to the Catholic education sector simply declining to take up the offer to develop the free-school model. Cue outrage, as all the old anti-Catholic prejudices – particularly acute within education – reared their foam-mouthed, swivel-eyed heads.

And yet, for all one might wish to advocate Catholic education, and the ethos and spirit which underpins it, one might yet sound a note of caution before embracing the idea that this should present the opportunity, let alone the desire, for a huge expansion in the Catholic school sector. The ideological case might be there – the pragmatic case, less so.

In a Catholic school, the Headteacher, Deputy Headteacher, and the Head of RE must be practising Catholics. This is a bare minimum – a skeletal requirement. In a school of 1,500 pupils and hundreds of staff and governors, three individuals on the teaching staff is not really very many. In addition, the Chair of Governors ought to be a practising Catholic, and the governing body must be composed of 51%+ foundation governors, all practising Catholics, appointed by the Bishop.

Which brings us to the meaning of ‘practising Catholic.’ This is defined (broadly) as being in union with the Church, both privately and publicly, on matters of faith and morals, and possessing a willingness to live by and profess the same – not a relative judgement, but an objective one. That is not to say applicants have to be perfect – how could it? – so the point is more about resolve than perfect attainment. And since one can never judge the depths of a soul, the only evidence used to ascertain whether or not someone is a practising Catholic is through the assessment of the ‘substantive life choices’ of the candidate.

But this can, and does, cause problems. Finding sufficient applicants with the skills and experience to become leaders is difficult enough; finding sufficient applicants who also meet the faith-based qualifying criteria all the more so. Indeed, in many places it is a challenge that cannot always be met. For those schools in desperate need of candidates to fill posts, this presents an obvious and understandable dilemma.

The result? A grey area, enabling a certain flexibility if one asks only certain questions and studiously avoids others. In other words, a certain amount of ‘playing the game’ emerges, and since eligibility is most easily demonstrated through external observance, through a collection of ‘substantive life choices’ that evidence a practising faith, so the Mass becomes the best place to display those qualificatory benchmarks. So that a sudden zeal, perhaps even conversion, presents itself immediately prior to an application, whilst a puzzling hiatus follows it. Our Lord, in the Blessed Sacrament, becomes a bauble on a CV.

This is why the free schools issue presents something of a headache. I am in favour of free schools and think Catholic ones present a wonderful opportunity for reform. But as an opportunity for expansion, they could prove an act of collective self-harm.

In short, we are already over-capacity. We already have real difficulty in training and attracting the individuals required to lead the schools we have. A whole host of new Catholic free schools would only dilute that pool still further, and further encourage institutions to exist in that grey area in its recruitment of candidates for leadership posts. Indeed, a rapidly decreasing pool of applicants might even encourage diocesan education services, and the Bishops’ Conference which directs them, to suggest the very same. So that our schools, already under such pressure to bend the knee to the secular, would be further incentivised to do so.

The impact would be to further erode the capacity to insist on that very thing which underpins our best and most authentic schools. Or, put another way: in our desperation to maintain and expand presence, we would have to dilute who we are and what we believe in order to do so, and thus become less than the very thing we were hoping to expand.

Catholic schools, on the whole, do an excellent job, precisely because of the Catholic educational philosophy and ethos which underpins them. It would be wrong to think that this could just be uprooted and planted elsewhere, with the effect assuredly replicated. Labelling a school as ‘Catholic’ means little: it is the spirit that enlivens that is everything. As Bishop Stock put it in his paper outlining the fundamentals of Catholic education, a Catholic school, to be authentically Catholic, must have ‘Christ at the Centre.’

We need to ask ourselves whether an expansion of the Catholic education sector would help or hinder that ambition.


Feminists and working-class boys

If you are a working-class boy, there is every chance that most of the professionals you will come across in your formative years are women. If you are a working-class boy, there is every chance that most of the authority figures you come across in your formative years will be women. If you are a working-class boy, there is every chance that your experience of women/girls during your formative years is that they are generally the high achieving and successful ones.

Unlike you. And your mates.

If you are a working class boy, there is also every chance that a good chunk of the males you encounter are proving less than successful in life. If you are a working class boy, there is every chance that a good chunk of the males you encounter are underemployed and undereducated.  If you are a working-class boy, there is every chance that the places you are most likely to come across successful males – secondary school, celebrity culture and the professional services – seem so remote, sometimes even antagonistic, to your own everyday experiences as to be almost alien.

We paint in broad brush strokes, of course, but there is justification, if only to tease out the central point. The idea that women are systematically disadvantaged in society might well be true. For this reason, we might well deem it morally justified to address this, through our politics, through our legal system, through our education system, through our cultural norms and practices.

But by the frames of reference available to working class boys, this can so often seem only to contradict lived reality. And if we then sit them down and tell them that they are part of the privileged, the winners in society, such that their interests must at times be circumvented to help girls and women be more successful, to achieve, to succeed in life – what do we expect the reaction to be? To feel engaged in eradicating injustice, or to feel even more alienated? To feel empowered, or further disenfranchised? To feel magnanimous, or further slighted?

Working class boys have it pretty tough, though there is little political capital in making the improvement of their condition a priority. And if one has already accepted that gender must trump class, then there is little moral reason to do so either.

In the meantime, we have a generation and more of working-class boys becoming a sink subsection of society, developing into the kind of men that only confirms the worst suspicions of those who would so readily write them off. We must not deny moral agency here: oftentimes this is of their own making, engaged in a downward spiral, formed within a cultural landscape marked by precisely that transience and insecurity that shapes a view of life and living that schooling and learning is failing to counter. And which only further feeds into that feeling of alienation, that perpetually unsuccessful attempt at the art of living well.

The result? Disengaged, angry young men. Lots of them. It is no surprise that this is beginning to shape our politics.

The condition of working-class girls is an essential part of this story, though it is legitimate to question how effectively feminism has captured this reality. I am from a northern working-class family in which the women are hard, authoritative, confident – though their concerns seem a world away from the attentions of academics and professionals, that which characterises the principal cultural and political expressions of feminism. My point is not that we must therefore choose between the two, but allow as valid a space where other narratives might appear.

And one of those narratives might be the impact social changes – economic and cultural – have had on working-class boys and men. We might think these changes worthwhile, worthy, fully justified, but we must also take account of the experiences of those on the sharp-end of such progress. Maybe a working-class feminism would better capture an understanding of the needs of working-class boys too. Maybe it wouldn’t. I really don’t know.

But what is clear is that working-class boys are struggling. Economically, socially, culturally, they are fast becoming a dalit class. We cannot claim to be a society that seeks justice if we stand blindly by and allow it to happen. And if feminism is really the best vehicle we have for providing an account of the way gender interacts and impacts on one’s place in society, then maybe there are grounds for hope. Because this seems to be precisely what working-class boys need right now. Maybe, then, working-class boys need feminists too. I suppose the question is: would feminists be willing to address that need?

A Letter to (liberal) Labour

So you feel disenfranchised? Alienated? Like your party has been stolen from you? That you have no voice? That you are not welcome? Not valued? Feel that nobody is willing to listen, let alone talk about your concerns? That your political home has been taken over by those hostile to you? That your contribution to the history and indeed DNA of the party has been re-written? Ignored? Mocked? Despised? That without your help, and your support, the party would never have had the success it has? And yet your party now scorn people like you? Call you appalling names? Render your views outside the mainstream?

Sh*t, isn’t it?

But you did that too. Whilst you were in charge, you did the very same. And here’s the thing: given half the chance, you still would. Indeed, you still do. You’ve learned nothing. If the response to the referendum has shown us anything, it showed us that. You might wail now, but you are simply on the end of the same treatment you dished out to others for so long. You remain as convinced of your own superiority as are those that now displace you; if you hadn’t been, they would never have had chance to replace you. And every time you seek to grab the party back, to regain the levers of power, you do it whilst re-asserting the same. For those you disenfranchised, you are no better option. The worm has turned – you need those whom you made feel so unwelcome for so long; but they no longer need you. So many of them have somewhere else to go now. And the guilt and blame for that lies at your door as much as anyone.

The new politics isn’t left and right. The new politics, and a lot of the old politics, is defined by this:



But here’s the thing – if your politics is solely about clubbing together with those in the right-hand column against those in the left, then you’ve already lost. And this is what you’ve done. This is how you’ve defined yourself, measured yourself. Any appeals to common ground that cannot bridge this divide is no appeal to common ground at all. You wouldn’t even be willing to unpick the threads, to see what’s going on. Your only explanation is moral degeneracy or intellectual retardation or both. Bigots or blaggards, all of them. You smugly proclaim, eyebrows raised, that the Hard Left would sooner die in a ditch that compromise on their ideals. But so would you. Every bit as much. Indeed, this is exactly what you have done. Exactly what you are doing.

And yet, for all that, you are right. The country needs a Labour government. An actual Labour government. Which means we need you. Those who put themselves on the left need to come together. Which means you need those you despise. To find common ground, as the cliché goes. Though to be honest, for all you proclaim it, I’m not convinced you really believe those words. Or could deliver on it. Or would deliver it, even if you could.

And so we have a mess. Labour is dead. Long live Labour.



Changing the Conversation

As it is the summer holidays for us teachers, I’ve managed to catch up on some reading, and in particular some of the excellent stuff being produced by various think-tanks and their associated academics. Not all, I should add, but enough to be able to severely pare down my favourites bar and those ‘Likes’ on Twitter that have been accumulating for some months now. Useful as this has been (it really has), a few things kept cropping up that lead me to think about what I think would help shape new perspectives in education policy discussion. There is always risk here – it can certainly come across as telling cleverer folk than oneself how to suck eggs – but it is not intended that way; more that I wonder if policy discussion can sometimes become a bit singular in its approaches, and might occasionally need a gentle reminder to consider others. Anyway, here they are, in no particular order.

  1. Talk more about students and less about teachers. Ultimately, it is the children who are underachieving. Or indeed, being successful. Too often we overplay the significance of the teacher in this. Teachers are of course important, vital even, and I can be as boisterous as any in reasserting that fact. However, the move toward technocracy and the rise of the celebrity teacher is injurious. Not only has excess focus on the teacher created a perverse accountability scheme which makes teachers responsible for things well outside of their control, it has also served to downplay and sometimes outright ignore those wider issues – primarily social and/or economic – that inhibit educational success. The chest-beating idealism of the those who will insist every child can be dragged into academic success if only our teachers were better provides a useful political narrative, but it ignores one important caveat – it’s rubbish. More than anything else, the educational achievement of parents is the key signifier. Throw in stability of home life and poverty, and you have a mix that serves to limit educational success more than any other factor. Of course some can overcome this, and do – bell-curve distribution is a bit like that. But most don’t. Our focus, then, must take into account that contextual detail. This might help us approach the question of educational underachievement from a more profitable perspective – the root of educational underachievement in the North, for example, is not simply that all northern teachers are rubbish. If that explanation is the best we have to go to, then that disadvantage will remain for a long time to come.
  2. Avoid the ‘Outstanding Teacher’ fallacy, which is to think that to simply have more Outstanding Teachers is sufficient, and that it is possible to simply have more Outstanding Teachers, enough indeed to turn around a whole system. It is very easy to say and delivers nice padding for speeches, but it is not where our principal challenge lies. Truth is, there is no special breed of people called ‘Outstanding Teachers’ and, even if there were, there wouldn’t be anywhere near enough of them to solve our system-wide problems. Life is messier than that, and outstanding practice (and otherwise) is a sliding scale which we all move up and down, the more/less so dependent on the school context, quality of leadership and myriad other factors. Transforming and transformative education is of course driven by recruiting and keeping good teachers – but what we really need is to think of how we best empower and enable the ‘ordinary teachers’, that being what the vast majority of those toiling away in the education system are (I blogged on this here). We might use a footballing analogy here: a manager might long for that one special player who can produce that ‘moment of magic’, but he is unlikely to then demand 11 of them. And even if that ideal were possible, it wouldn’t be scale-able across a whole system – instead we must create an environment where all can perform; for every Mahrez, there are a handful of Danny Simpsons and Robert Huths whom we also need to perform. Long-term sustainability and whole-system improvement demands that we instead focus our efforts how to create the conditions for that success, rather than over-concentrating on unearthing diamonds (many of whom might leave the profession anyway).
  3. The Intangibles. Not easy, of course, because they are, well, intangible. However, bracketing this out of our conversations about schools and school improvement is to declare our analyses spiritually impoverished, neglectful of the beauty and soul that comprises an excellent education. In other words, it is to declare our analyses insufficient. Sometimes, then, we need to take a step back, look at the bigger picture, and recognise the importance of those things which cannot be easily measured. In schools this can be a huge variety of factors, some of them hyperlocal, others more systemic, but all of which nonetheless need parsing. A small example: rural and provincial schools often have serious difficulty in providing their students with access to high culture. This is important. This has an impact. And yet it too rarely features in discussion about raising standards. It should do. It has to.
  4. Tempting as it might be, don’t build a case around data from Ofsted. The validity of their gradings is little trusted in the profession, not least because it too often contradicts our own experiences of the reality on the ground (we all know a school whose intake locks in the highest Ofsted grades, but whose practice and behaviour we know to be less impressive than the allegedly poor school down the road). In addition, anomalies are copious – note the confusing discrepancy between primaries and secondaries in the North-East, for example, an inconsistency that ought to lead one to wonder whether our accountability systems are quite the objective process they claim themselves to be (a point of order Sir Michael Wilshaw chose to acknowledge but not pursue in his speech on northern education). Indeed, Ofsted’s incoming director has shown herself open to abolishing the Outstanding grade, both for reasons of reliability (testing has suggested both ‘Outstanding’ and ‘Inadequate’ grading has the whiff of the arbitrary) and because of the impact it has on the system, including a concern that there is a system-bias against disadvantaged schools in grading. Thus, proceeding from statistics about how many Outstanding schools there in London compared to the North-West is likely to fall flat.

For Us or Against Us

If you pride yourself on rejecting a wider culture, where do your benchmarks lie? If you boldly proclaim to be doing something different, to be rejecting the ‘blob’ of education culture which has failed children for decades, if your crusade consists of ‘cocking a snook‘ at ‘edufashion’ and ‘edubabble’, what compass exists to protect you from ethical solipsism?  What keeps your righteousness righteous?

It is not impossible, of course, though it is a lot of pressure to put on oneself, to reinvent an educational culture. We might structure our pedagogy around evidence, that has bones, but what of our ethics? Appeals to the educational culture of prior eras might hold substance, but they do not hold immediacy – almost inevitably, the recovery of a past tradition from a ruptured history requires contemporary re-invention. And sometimes, we being human and fallible, this can misfire.  Worse, it might not always be immediately evident what constitutes a misfire.

In a culture war, the other side are just wrong. The temptation is to slide into rejectionist politics, to define oneself against the other, to use difference as a distinguishing feature. They believe A, we believe B, and because they are wrong, B must be right. Only sometimes that hits up with reality: sometimes they’re not wrong, we are, but in assessing our righteousness through our difference, we already rule out one important way of knowing it. When elevated to the status of cultural significance, the lines become inflexible –the crowd, participants in the battle, beneficiaries of the status it provides, rarely provide perspective.

worm-with-or-against-usThis phenomenon is particularly prominent in politics. Politicians, surrounded by sycophants and bathed in a narrative of delivering the right and the good against the hostility of a misguided (perhaps even malign) foe, can lose critical perspective. If your decision-making is defined against Them Lot Who Are Wrong, and your check-systems are all supportive because they, too, sign up to the same battle, then you have the recipe for an intellectual echo-chamber which raises ends over means and justifies egregious behaviour in the name of the good.

And so, over the last 48 hours, we have a situation where people who want Michaela to fail jump on a piece of evidence to bolster their cause, whilst those who want Michaela to succeed refuse the legitimacy of such allegations because the people making the case lack neutrality. The point at issue, that Michaela employ a policy of isolating children for non-payment of lunch fees, has been lost as two sides of a wider cultural battle face-off, with one side screaming evidence and the other demanding context, and both questioning the partiality of the other. And, somewhere in the middle of the two, a chunk of people with a multitude of biases though with no particular axe to grind, who just think the policy wrong. An ethical statement, not a political one.ClFFiHJWQAAzkKc

I am not sure advocates for Michaela (of whom I count myself) aid their cause by adopting a kind of educational clericalism which rejects missteps by appeal to the wickedness of their foes and an appeal to all the other good things they do. It might sting a bit – nobody likes giving ground to someone whose motivations one questions – but Michaela the institution has little to lose from it. Hands up, acknowledge, move on.  Framing the response in an ever deeper descent into culture war is risky (the reaction is the result of middle-class, liberal guilt, apparently – one thing I have never, ever been called is liberal: perish the thought!). Planting the flag might rally allies to the cause, but it can also inflame a minor issue – either a misguided school policy or a poorly drafted letter from a deputy – and nudge erstwhile allies toward becoming opponents. Righteousness might make us combative, but wisdom should temper our pugilism.

I want Michaela to succeed, in the same way I want Hyman’s School 21 to succeed, and UTCs, and free schools, and SEND schools, and church schools, and community schools, and everything else besides. The mainstream needs alternative models of success, institutions which embody particular virtues and turn them to an educational good. And if they work, all of us are the richer for the success of it. But not every step along the way can be a sure one. There are bumps. I hope Michaela, with its excellent staff and undoubted commitment to the children in its care, can soon overcome this particular bump in the road, and get back to serving its community, showing the rest of us the values and virtues of its own model of educational excellence.

Losing the Working Class

Re-posted from the Catholic Herald blog. The original can be read here

It wasn’t supposed to be like this.

Labour is the party of the working class. We weren’t supposed to end up despised by them. We weren’t supposed to end up despising them.

But here we are. After decades spent embracing the creeds and infrastructure of liberalism, we are at a juncture which threatens our very existence. Labour’s doctrines have delivered a fractured civic space – we can no longer build coalitions, for where we once saw comrades we now convince ourselves there are only villains.

It is the startling descent into misanthropy and insult which hurts most.That moment when Gordon Brown called Gillian Duffy a “bigot” was but a scratching of the surface. The demographic most enthusiastic about voting Leave have been dismissed as racist or xenophobic for years, but it is only in the last few days, following the referendum, that I have seen the very legitimacy of their suffrage questioned – the prosperous, well-educated liberal left, summoning Victorian-era paternalism to question the wisdom of giving votes to the ill-educated.

Of course, this chasm between party and people is of surprise only to those cloistered away amongst the like-minded. Much has been made of the demographic divide between the two competing mindsets prior to the referendum. But turning this into one-dimensional face-off between the haves and the have-nots presumes an irresolvable conflict. That’s too pessimistic: there is a way out of our current malaise.

But we first need to understand what has gone wrong. It can be summed up in a word: liberalism.

This has been the central insight of the movement that coalesced around the name Blue Labour. Building upon foundations laid by Phillip Blond and his Red Tory analysis, its central claim was clear: to use the succinct words of Maurice Glasman, ‘Liberalism is alive – and it’s killing us.’

Blue Labour provided an account of the impact of liberalism upon our relationships, from the economic to the social to the romantic to the filial.  Liberty defined over and against the duties and obligations we owe one another, we contended, served only to loose the ties that bind our futures together. In a barren, empty landscape, free of obstructions, cold winds blow unfettered – and it has been the poorest who have felt the chill most keenly.

In a world in which our futures compete and do not cohere, we have found it difficult to forge a politics for all, since we have convinced ourselves that not all have a place in our politics. Labour embraced the new liberalism more keenly than any, first socially, and then in the realm of economics, in so doing surrendering its conservative defence of the family and society against the excesses of market and power.

Offering to patch up the victims with state largesse has proven insufficient. People want livelihood, stability and dignity, whilst all we offer is low-grade subsistence delivered with a slight sneer at a class of people quietly deemed unfit for this newly globalised world. It is quite an irony: in proclaiming “diversity”, we have become homogenous, no longer able to even understand the language of our comrades, let alone speak it.

Until it boils over. And then everybody has a theory about what has gone wrong and why. Most of these analyses consist in reinforcing much of that which has brought us to the precipice. Those who presided over the years in which Labour became so very distant from its core communities are now the ones seeking to lay all the blame at the door of its current leader. By trying to make this about Jeremy Corbyn, Labour are leading themselves away from a truth they must confront: this is about Labour.

And so the gap lengthens, and the people have turned from exasperation to active hostility. And we, as a party, have made ourselves unable to respond. Whatever happens next will be historic in the future of Labour. If, after whatever happens next, we still have a party called Labour. Either way, one thing is certain. There is a new politics. One wonders if a new party might be needed to meet it.