I have a confession. It’s not one that makes me proud – these things rarely are – but it was one that made me think. Indeed, it was the thing that made me fundamentally rethink so much about education. Please be generous.
It involved a lad who was not doing as he should. He could have had good grades, but he didn’t. And one early summer afternoon early on in my teaching career, after having tried every strategy I knew, I said a thing which in my naivety I thought might be motivational but which I now realise was just conceited: ‘you crack on then lad, and at this rate you’ll end up stacking shelves, but hey if that’s what you’re happy with you go for it.’
In my head, in the respectable world in which I now existed, this prospect alone would be enough to effect change, to bring about the transformation in attitude and approach I desired, to ensure this kid met his ‘true potential.’ I, the virtuous hero, speaking truths from compassion, to save the working-class kid, to deliver him to ‘better things.’
It didn’t have the desired effect. I lost that battle, truth be told, even whilst thinking I was winning it. And if this were a film, I’d have found out why in some chance coming together later down the line – tragedy, followed by redemption. But I never did find out. After he left I just never saw him again and, if I’m honest, thought little more of it. Until some years later, and parents’ evening, and there was Mum, younger child in tow, straight from work, in her ASDA uniform.
Up until that point, I hadn’t realised that the thing that I thought proved I had high standards was actually the thing that showed my standards were nowhere near high enough. I had mistaken my obnoxiousness for aspiration, perceived my judgmentalism as compassion and care. After all, I told myself, if I didn’t want these things for these kids, who would? Do they not deserve the chance to be successful too? And more to the point, who wouldn’t want these things?
The slow realisation of quite what a morass of assumptions lay buried away in that train of thought hit hard – and caused me to rethink everything.
In the wake of the current social disruption unprecedented in most of our lifetimes, I wonder if we find ourselves at a similar crossroads. Slowly it is dawning that our own assumptions might too be in need of a rethink, a truth brought home forcefully as those we previously undervalued become the very ones we realise we rely upon most.
Up to this point, we in education have been the fundamental part of a culture (and a structure that expresses it) in which one pathway is elevated as the model of success and against which other pathways are compared. To be successful, to get on, means to be academically successful, and schools have been the place to make this happen. A mix of vanity and Pelagianism has been absorbed into an education sector, in which success is perceived as merely a matter of the will. We have convinced ourselves destiny can be chosen through individual efforts alone, and those who do not succeed deserve not to have done so, having obviously chosen not to do so.
Deviation from this story has been dismissed as the ‘soft bigotry of low expectations’, a culture war putdown useful for breezily dismissing the uneven playing field on which our kids are forced to run their race – the winners drunk on phrases like ‘meritocracy’ to add a justificatory glaze to a system in which those best placed to succeed will succeed, though now without the necessity of having to acknowledge their good fortune in having done so. Social mobility – though it comes at a cost – provides some succour for those concerned with social justice, though it can only ever be window dressing to pull attention away from the raw deal we give to a great many more and have managed to rationalize in the name of justice.
And for too long we in education have embraced this too. Just as education has effectively become a grad-only profession, so it has absorbed all the values and justifications of that liberal graduate class of which it is almost exclusively comprised. We have gone along with the idea that our success is measured by grades, that our quality of education can be weighed by how many we get to university, that those who do not go on to graduate are in some sense a missed opportunity. In short, we have bought the lie that we are successful at our jobs when we manage to make as many kids as possible like ‘us’ – in thought and deed – and we value less those who are not.
Sometimes history bites you in the backside. With the coronavirus pandemic we are seeing a new reckoning of value as those who we would historically deem as having not been successful present themselves as vital to us all. Success, for so long, has not been measured by how many people become hauliers, or carers, or delivery drivers, but in how many take their place in that respectable strata of graduate society. The paradox presented by the events of recent weeks education is we have spent years convincing ourselves that we’re most successful when the kids in our care don’t go on to those low paid, low-status jobs that everybody has now realised are actually vital. And so we find ourselves in an uncomfortable place.
I don’t think I have ever met anyone in education who doesn’t want the best for the kids in their care. For the most part we react to, and are a reflection of, external priorities and events – we don’t really create them. And if being ‘successful’ comes with the pre-condition of getting a clutch of good grades, then who wouldn’t want that for all kids? There are lingering biases, sure – but they’re evidence of good will, not malign intent.
Still, if events of the last few days might make us confront anything, perhaps it is this whole set of assumptions and value. Perhaps we will realise that what we have for so long placed as a lesser option, a lowlier life path, is nonetheless vital to us all – and those who stand there serving us all have every bit as much a claim to respect and dignity as anybody else. After all, who would make a dismissive comment about stacking shelves now?