Below is a provocation piece delivered at the Battle of Ideas, on the panel ‘Too Dumb to Vote?‘
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It wasn’t supposed to be like this, was it? It was all supposed to be very straightforward – a simple, definitive referendum, which would show up a swivel-eyed minority as out of touch, put jingoistic Tories back in their box, and finally close the discussion on EU membership for a generation.
Only, it didn’t work that way, did it? In a fit of bloody-minded pique, the British public decided otherwise; they ignored their alleged betters, held firm in the face of a barrage of threats and insults, and obstinately voted however they damn well pleased, thank you very much. And of course, by a slim margin, they chose to Leave.
The education gap in the vote is undeniable. Or better, the qualification gap, which is not quite the same thing. What is deniable, however, is that this represents any sort of argument against the legitimacy of the voter, or indeed any sort of argument against the legitimacy of the vote.
I have lost count of the amount of times I have read that the Brexit vote was simply the suspension of reason, the triumph of the unreasonable, that there exists no substantive reason to vote Leave, that this was but an emotional spasm of the ‘left-behind’, a xenophobic upsurge characteristic of the ill-educated.
All of which represents nothing more than a juvenile wail against the fact that there exists a group of people, several in number, who have different values, cherish different things, draw their lines in different places.
The Brexit vote wasn’t, in truth, about education – it was about people with a worldview more complex, indeed more nuanced, than the anodyne materialism that underpinned pretty much every Remain argument. It pitted wisdom against intellect, lived reality against spreadsheet theorising – and it was the former that won out.
To declare, in increasingly shrill response, there are no rational reasons to vote Brexit, that those who did so were simply ill-educated, is to do little more than declare oneself an intellectual and emotional desert, so attached to a very particular account of reason as to exclude what else makes us human – identity, community, security, dignity, control.
The Remain side committed two big mistakes. Firstly, they reduced the whole discussion to a material analysis, elevating the quantifiable ‘evidence-based’ lens as the only legitimate forum of discussion, and severely downplayed, where they did not dismiss, the importance of precisely those intangibles that still hold sway over the hearts and minds of many. Or as one person recently claimed, “notions of democracy and sovereignty are not tangible issues, and so cannot be considered rational reasons to vote Leave.”
No wonder these people lost.
But secondly, they also presented their own arguments shrouded in reasoning and argument so arcane as to make themselves look like the ones who had taken leave of their reason. There is no surprise here, – this is common to the highly educated – they are much better able to find ways of providing a rational edifice to uphold their prejudices, and then mock and question the intellect of those who fail to fall into line.
I know of one professor who, with admirable patience, repeatedly explained to me the sovereignty argument was not valid since the EU enhanced our sovereignty by allowing us to pool it for a greater purpose, and that the slogan ‘Take back control,’ really had nothing to do with the EU. Now, this is a valid argument, and boils down to saying that losing some sovereignty can sometimes be a worthwhile trade-off. But it takes a good deal working through to get to that point, a collection of premises running toward a conclusion, and it needs heavily qualified. To declare from the off that there is simply no loss of sovereignty, against both common experience and perception, only reinforces to the masses the feeling that perhaps these terribly well-educated people are not so clever as they appear, or so honest as they proclaim.
The follow-up has proven just as bad – the hysterical reaction toward those who voted Leave, at times personal and too often vindictive, has been a case study the ultimate futility of seeking to get out of a hole by digging deeper. And yet, this is indicative of a certain mindset, a certain class. To broaden this out a bit, there exists today a highly-educated group of individuals, remarkably alike in habit and mind, who stubbornly cling to a worldview that is crumbling around them. As their totems fall, they double down – they abuse and mock their opponents, they insist upon ever more provocative and esoteric creeds, they advocate ever more illiberal and anti-democratic moves to enforce their privileged position in society. And worse, they see in this not only the evidence of their superiority, but the source of their virtue.
The question before us is whether there exists amongst us those whom we might consider to be too dumb to vote. I trust, nay hope, the panel here will conclude this is not the case. I would only add that, were we to decide with the philosopher kings and the paternalists, and task ourselves with deciding who, precisely, deserved categorisation of being too dumb to vote, then I would steer clear of the working clubs and the bingo halls, of the pubs and the pews. No, I’d head instead for the university departments and the news floors, the City bars and the political lobby, where there exists more than enough reason to suspect the wisdom of the inhabitants therein, and wonder whether or not it is they, despite their finger-pointing denunciations, whose intelligence we need to consider more closely.
In the words of Kipling, in his poem the Land, in which he explored precisely the relationship between the rooted and their assorted overlords; ‘Not for any beast that burrows, not for any bird that flies, Would I lose his large sound counsel, miss his keen amending eyes.’ If one cannot see the wisdom in those words, if one feels even the temptation to reverse suffrage in the name of disenfranchising the common folk, then I believe we have found the one who really is too dumb to vote.
A little while back I wrote a blog post reflecting on some of my experiences of social mobility, teasing out some of the effects that have received rather less attention within a political environment that has held commitment to social mobility as a staple of virtuous and socially concerned politics. That blog post received some attention, and I was lucky enough to be offered the opportunity to talk through some of these thoughts on BBC Radio Four Thought. You can listen to the episode here.
The script for Four Thought is largely a condensed version of the original blog post, so I shan’t replicate it here, though for those who might be interested, I did add some further thoughts focusing in on how these things apply to our education system. Partly, these are the thinking through of a theme I have explored as part of Blue Labour here, a TES piece on ‘aspiration’ here, a post on the culture clash in our schools here, and a post on Brexit here. I have included the additional comments from the radio script below.
It is a theme I’ll no doubt return to in due course, but in the meantime many thanks all for the kind comments and good will.
As such, if you arrive from a working-class background, the graduate professions are not always a comfortable place to be. You grow accustomed to the objects of derision being people like your family, those you grew up with, those you know and love. Whilst the disdain might sometimes be delivered in the abstract, the barbs are felt personally, especially when aimed at a viewpoint common amongst those who comprised your upbringing. The creation myth of the liberal mind is one of a virtuous battle against intolerance, bigotry and demonization of the Other – but those who pursue such accounts of virtue don’t always realise, or don’t care, that these are precisely the sins they commit in the eyes of those on the receiving end of their disdain.
And this has become status seeking behaviour: there is prestige to be acquired through the sassy, the rude, the downright spiteful to working-class folk with more conservative views, on immigration, perhaps, or crime, or Brexit. Detractors revel in the eloquence of their disdain, as if articulacy were evidence of truth and justification of their prejudice. Thus the motes are plucked out whilst the beams remain – the cultured despisers find in their intellectual superiority, an argument for their presumed existential superiority, too.
There is nothing particularly new in this, and in any echo chamber dissent is proof that someone is Not Like Us, and thus wrong. From which naturally follows the belief that there’s a moral duty to help future generations become more Like Us, and thus right.
In our schools, this has real consequences, as a class of Anywheres, to use David Goodhart’s terms, seek to educate a generation of Somewheres, with the former believing success includes educating the latter out of the values and culture of their upbringing.
And so pupils from a socially or morally conservative background, which often (not always) overlaps with a working-class (or religious) upbringing, will at times find themselves at odds with the moral norms of those who educate them, a culture chasm always framed as simply a matter of education, or more precisely the absence of it.
For our education system, children formed by such views must simply reject them, since that’s the character of being educated. Virtue, and intellect, demands it – and the educated are much better at making the intellectual case for their virtue.
But this feels unwise. In a contest between home and academic flourishing, some choose home; not because of ignorance, but because of a refusal to shed heritage as participation fee. For too many, education presents itself as not for people like them, at least not whilst they remain people like Them – to be educated too often means not being like your Mum or Dad. Thus, we present our children with a choice they should not have to make, in so doing pushing them away from an inheritance they should not have to abandon.
And so the cycle continues, a tension between home and school, in which the rejection of home is synonymous with being educated. Social mobility, it cannot be denied, has a cultural edge – the ability, even the demand, to walk away from who are you are, or at the very least where you are from. At the same time, a residential university system has entrenched the idea that flourishing is only to be found when we leave, less so when we stay.
If we want to talk about why working-class kids are alienated from education, we could do worse than start a conversation here.
None of which is to say working class kids need not aspire to high culture and education, a calumny which often rears its head in the guise of compassion. No, the precise opposite. It’s to say that our cultural and intellectual treasures are a heritage due to all, and we might better ensure its equal distribution if we focused less on the purity of the receiver, and more on the dignity of the receiving.
Of course, this is more complex than a simple to-and-fro between two competing accounts of the good life, and neither side are entirely wrong, even if heart battles fiercely with head in trying to work out the best, or worst, of the two. Still, if you join the affray from a working-class background, you inevitably have a foot in both camps, leaving you an outsider to each. The world that formed you, that helped you fly, can be the world that risks holding you back, a world which you both reject(ed) and embrace at the same time.
And it’s always the rejection that each side remembers, never the embrace.
Northern education is talked about frequently. Northern educators, on the other hand, are talked to rather less frequently. We are regularly told about the deficiencies of the education we offer; we are less regularly listened to about the challenges that shape the education we offer.
This is unjust.
We do not deny there are improvements to be made. We do not deny that change needs to happen. But we reasonably expect to have a voice of our own when discussing how these things might be achieved.
We are as skilled, as passionate, as well-informed as our colleagues in other areas of the country – we deserve to have our voice heard. And too often it feels as if it is not, with discussion and access always based far away from the villages, town and cities that we teach in.
This needs to change.
And so, we propose the creation of a Northern Education Forum. We’ve put together a Google Form [sign up here] for those who may wish to register their interest in being involved. The details of its remit, its membership, and its role will be fleshed out over the coming weeks.
But in the meantime, we have one simple question:
Below I have outlined some of the changes we have made that some have shown an interest in over the course of the year. Whilst relatively brief (I will try to develop full length posts on each as further reflections/evaluations points occur), I hope it might prove of interest in outlining key changes we have made to marking and curriculum. There is another blog to be written on changes to behaviour and rewards policy (though do check on the recent post on the St. Cuthbert Award), though I have left it out here, mostly for reasons of time. Anyway, all feedback/questions/comments welcome!
We have taken the view that marking too often became a way that a teacher was expected to demonstrate their own work, rather than help a pupil improve theirs. Quite apart from the huge and unnecessary burden this places on staff, it is also ultimately inefficient if the desire is not to check up on teachers, but to check on learning.
As with many of our changes, the overriding goal has been to grow a culture in which our pupils develop a sense of self-discipline and responsibility, the better to form in them healthy habits that will, we hope, help children successfully navigate life in general, not just school in particular. In addition to our behaviour and rewards policies, we came to the view that this can be further reinforced through marking policy – that is, by expecting pupils to take pride in, and responsibility for, the improvement and correction of their own work, rather than placing that responsibility primarily on the teacher. There is plenty of evidence to suggest revision, evaluation and correction also improves retention and understanding – so it felt like a straightforward decision.
And so, we have moved away from a marking policy and toward a feedback policy.
In this, written feedback from the teacher is optional, but not required or expected. What is expected is that each session will start with feedback time, during which the teacher will give verbal feedback to the class on three broad categories – punctuation and grammar, spelling, and content. These sessions should last no more than 10 minutes, but sometimes they might throw up issues or opportunities that a teacher chooses to make a focus of a follow-up lesson. The sessions can be used to reinforce spelling and/or grammar rules, to develop depth and add detail to initial work, or set challenge tasks. During this time the teacher circulates to make sure a pupil is acting on feedback, and will enact any interventions that might be necessary (an issue with presentation, for example, or a particular problem with repeated misunderstanding or inaccuracy).
We are still monitoring impact at this point, though the initial results have been pleasing – instead of a child correcting three missed capital letters and three spellings, all of which the teacher had found for them, the pupil might now make 5, 10, 15 or more improvements, with SPAG rules consolidated along the way, an intervention that would have taken an inordinate amount of time for the teacher to identify and highlight for each pupil under the old, more traditional marking policy. The policy has also been put through its paces in the context of an LA review, and came out well, which was pleasing.
This is not to say that there are no questions thrown up by our new approach, or that we have squared the circle; we are still grappling with how to make this work most effectively in KS1, though we are seeking to embed the principle of self-review, evaluation and improvement there, too. Similarly, we take a slightly different approach in Maths (more on that in another blog), whilst there are further conversations to be had regarding specific interventions for more significant barriers, particularly spelling. Nonetheless, to date the change of approach to marking and feedback has been an important step in raising standards. We will continue to reflect on and refine our policy, to achieve the overriding goal of learner responsibility and improved standards.
No More Marking
Following on from the Feedback Policy, we have moved toward No More Marking to help us with writing assessment. This was partly entered into as another aspect of our attempt to address workload and put greater emphasis on planning over marking when it comes to managing time and resources, but it was also about finding ways to improve the assessment process. Whilst we have brought in various assessment changes across the curriculum, assessment for writing is more difficult, since it is more vulnerable to the risks of subjectivity, as well as shifting (and sometimes baffling) moderation frameworks. As such, No More Marking, with its layers of built-in moderation, seemed to offer the opportunity to improve both assessment of work, but also greater opportunity for reflection and discussion on our own moderation judgements as individuals.
To date, we have completed an internal moderation session, across the Federation, to introduce the staff to the process, and we are now aligning with the national moderation windows. This will become a part of our internal moderation schedule, but also give useful data against larger cohorts. Writing moderation has had its fair share of critics recently, though the move toward best-fit criteria makes No More Marking appealing as a valuable source of both formative and summative assessment. At this point, our goal is simply to monitor impact and see if it enables us to achieve our development points with regards to writing. This will include our own implementation and use of the opportunities it affords, in particular ways in which it might be used to impact more directly upon teaching (and thus CPD), rather than just assessment.
If you’ve read my blog before, you’ll have probably guessed that curriculum has been a particular interest over the past year or so (see here, here and here). The blog was the thinking aloud of changes we were already making to our curriculum, considering them in light of own desire for a knowledge focused curriculum that was not only faithful to, but articulated and illustrated, the contours of the Catholic vision to which we are committed. We have developed our curriculum accordingly, with an eye on developing ‘cultural literacy’ (though I have problems with that term – see here). However, it was also with the belief that it is the job of educators to furnish the mind of pupils with (to use a phrase common to Catholic educational philosophy) the good, the true, and the beautiful, the more so in contexts where, as in our case, exposure to such things might otherwise be minimal.
Nonetheless, we are not a large institution, meaning that resources, and time, is very much limited. As such, we have decided to phase our changes, and have focused on developing the foundation curriculum first. This is to better ensure the delivery of a broad curriculum that, if successful, also naturally supports and enhances the core subjects of Maths, English, Science and R.E. Without time to reinvent the wheel, we were guided by the Core Knowledge scheme, using these as templates for developing our own curricula.
To help signpost core content, we have initially taken an approach of content statements (see snapshots below). These are not used for assessment beyond a glance at what has been covered and how the pupil performed within the context of that lesson (as judged through written work and formative assessment). Instead, they are intended to outline what we expect the children to know as part of their learning over the course of any particular module. Further skills statements – particularly in Geography and History – run alongside the content markers. In places, these statements have the potential to be developed still further, and the move into module planning is a short one, though that would be a heavy investment of resources. As such, focus at the moment is on sharing of planning across institutions, building up planning and resources over the course of implementation.
We are aware that, to develop this approach, we will need to develop a more systematic assessment to accompany the curriculum, although having reached out to several schools it is notable how assessment within the foundation subjects is markedly undeveloped. I suspect this will change with the shift in broader inspection priorities. This is something we will be looking to develop over the course of the forthcoming year, as well as further considering the question of how such a curriculum might begin to inform pedagogical choices.
For English and Maths we are less embedded at this point, though the English curriculum in particular lends itself to a more codified knowledge-based approach, something we are actively developing over the course of this academic year. Of course, English contains many significant strands of study, and the nature of assessment frameworks means a focus on skills cannot be sidelined entirely – as such, the vision is for a signposted curriculum in which certain skills can be taught through certain identified texts, ensuring both breadth of content and attention to the detail of assessment criteria.
We have been itching to improve our science curriculum since we came into the school. Science can be a tricky one to get right – it can be very easy for development of practical skills and experimentation to find itself sidelined due to lack of resources, or lack of expertise, or indeed lack of teacher confidence, or lack of teacher time. At the same time there can exist an opposite risk, so that Science can be reduced down to general ‘whizz-bang’ without accompanying academic content. When we were looking at ways to improve Science, we noticed that so many courses seemed to offer a quick-fix piece of training for an individual teacher, or a standalone resource kit which would have little overall impact on delivery of Science across the school.
In the end, we came across Developing Experts, a new-ish initiative working in conjunction with various luminaries of the core knowledge approach, most notably E D Hirsch. The scheme is exhaustive, places emphasis on developing inquiry and experimentation skills alongside academic content, and provides all curriculum-linked planning (and even data analysis). It also has briefing sheets for teachers, video content to help explain and explore scientific theory and application, links for each area of discovery to testimonies of those who have developed careers in this area of expertise, and also how-to videos for the experiments outlined in planning.
To date, we have been delighted with the impact on Science in our schools, most notably transforming the frequency and quality of science practicals, but also, the development of scientific inquiry in our pupils, and the quality and depth of work being recorded in Science books.
Obviously, there is still a long way to go on our improvement journey, and but I hope this might be of interest to those who have, at various points, asked for details about some of the changes we have been making. If anybody has any further questions, or would like to know anything more, do please get in touch – or better still, pay us a visit!
One thing we’ve been interested to develop at our school is a reward scheme that reinforces school priorities, and encourages children to proceed through the stages of motivation from extrinsic to intrinsic. In so doing, we aim to shift pupil perspective from individual focus to recognition of what it means to be a part of a school community. This has lead to a reinvention of historic behaviour policy, the reintroduction of a House system and House Points scheme, and investment in a reward scheme and celebration schedule which includes everything from small gifts, to trips, to pin badges for excellence.
However, we are also aware that there are some things which might historically have been taught discretely at school, and which most adults would expect children to know, that are slipping through the gap. As such, we hoped to find a way to bring in aspects of personal and moral development into the Reward System. We had heard from a local school of a Headteacher’s Challenge award and, after having a look and being impressed, we have decided to put something together of our own.
As it stands, the idea is to run an annual award scheme, and those who complete the challenges will attend a reward trip at the end of the year. The children receive a small booklet with all the targets listed, to be signed off by a teacher upon completion. Not all need be completed (we have set a minimum of 27 to be completed out of 32 total challenges) – we’re aware this has to span over several year groups, and interest/capacity for some targets might vary, so latitude is needed.
One question upon which we are not yet firmly decided is how to structure the targets. Whilst the original idea was to focus exclusively on life skills, we have expanded it to include three core areas – study success, personal living, and spiritual/moral development (we’re a Catholic school). This is not set in stone, and it can make the targets look a bit hotch-potch, but we hope it will link with what is already in place to ensure our children know that excellence must exist not only in academic achievement, but personal skills and development too. In the end, it is about developing discipline, in the broadest sense of that word – this will underpin any successful future attempt in the art of living well.
The award is initially anticipated to be targeted at Key Stage 2. There is something to be said for separate lists for each year group, or perhaps each phase, to follow a child all the way through their schooling, and maybe this is something we will look into going forward. This would certainly allow us to include a great deal more targets, and take a more expansive approach to personal development. Still, as an initial run, we will focus on introducing a scheme with Key Stage 2 and refining as the need arises.
And so, below is the provisional list we are working with. These are subject to change, and some are under discussion. I have also included suggestions below that others have offered. Since we’re trying to split this over three different categories, it is impossible to include everything, and some valuable things have to be left out – maybe this is something we can consider moving forward, particularly if we decide to go ahead with having different age-related strands in future.
Anyway, if you have any thoughts – about either the organisation of the scheme or the targets in it – then do please comment below.
- Take on a household job for a term
- Become a House Point Star
- Achieve a commendation certificate in celebration assembly.
- Recite a poem off by heart to class or during a school assembly.
- Perform on stage (or support off stage) in a school production or concert.
- Attend Mass in the parish at the weekend at least three times
- Keep a class or school job/responsibility for at least half a term.
- Achieve an attendance award
- Write a formal thank you letter to a member of school staff
- Know all your times tables by heart
- Research and write a biography of St. Cuthbert (compulsory)
- Know the Our Father, Hail Mary and the Glory Be off by heart
- Attend in full school uniform every day
- Run/jog a mile without walking.
- Achieve full marks in every spellings test for a term
- Be able to read an analogue clock
- Read 12 books from the school library.
- Be able to keep eye contact whilst talking with an adult
- Be able to use a knife and fork correctly.
- Attend an after-school club for at least three half-terms
- Attend an out of school club for at least a term
- Raise money for a charity
- Be able to tie shoe laces
- Be a reading buddy for a younger child for a term
- Add a prayer to the Prayer Tree
- Receive a House Point for cursive handwriting
- Use your school planner and hand homework in on time
- Find a five (or more) letter word in a dictionary in seconds or less.
- Lead class worship
- Receive a House Point for good manners or politeness
- Know ABC and be able to put someone in the recovery position
- Make a simple healthy snack or meal (with adult help)
Other suggestions that have been made, primarily through Twitter, include:
- Be able to iron a shirt
- Know your own address, birth date, and telephone number
- Write a birthday card
- Polish your own shoes – with polish, brush and buffer
- Be able to introduce yourself politely, with handshake and eye contact
- Write a simple thank you note
- Grow a plant or vegetable
- Be able to sew a button on to clothes
- Be able to cross a road safely
- Be able to wash hands properly
- Be able to ride a bike
- Be able to swim at least 20 metres
- Be able to identify ten common plants/birds/bugs
- Be in charge of washing up and putting away dishes for at least a term
- Have cared for an animal for a period of time
- Use a screwdriver
- Make a bed properly
- Clean and dress a wound
- Be a reading buddy for a younger child for a term
- Be able to plan a balanced meal
- Be able to follow a recipe
- Be able to tie a tie
- Be able to fix a puncture
- Visit a retirement home
- Do a cartwheel.
- Pack an overnight bag
- Be able to boil an egg
I think I was 14. It was an English lesson, as I recall. And the words were delivered with the hint of a smirk.
‘Well of course, the Sun has a reading age of eight.’
Innocuous enough. And I didn’t know if it was true, nor much care. The truth was less important than the implication, to be honest, veracity less important than meaning. I knew what was going on, what was really being said: ‘here are people who are not like us, we clever ones, we sophisticated ones, we who can see through the ruse to the ignorance of folk. We, children, know better, are better.’
I wanted to be part of the in-group. I wanted to have real status and authority, too. To be like you, Sir, all knowledgeable and self-assured and authoritative. I didn’t want to be one of Them, so subtly scorned with a barbed comment and the raise of an eyebrow. So it seeped in. It became true. Those stupid Sun readers – thickos, bigots all.
Only, my Dad was a Sun reader. And many of my family. And most of the folk on the council estate where I grew up. I knew this because I delivered their morning papers seven days a week. And it was nearly always the Sun, occasionally the Star, the odd Daily Mirror. Except on Sundays, when it was usually the News of the World, and occasionally the Sunday People.
I was, to use an unfashionable term, something of a ‘chav’ at school, though I can chart a change in self-image from around this time onward, from Kappa and Ellesse to Officers’ Club and a whole different section of the Littlewoods catalogue. Perhaps this was just normal teenage rebellion. Either way, I had decided that I wanted something different, that I was cut from different cloth, that the world held better in store for me than it did for those whose love and support had brought me to this point. I distinctly remember being in a GCSE class, reading aloud Heaney’s Follower, a poem superficially about a boy helping his father with jobs around the farm, and the words of the final stanza hitting like thunder – ‘I was a nuisance, tripping, falling/Yapping always. But today/It is my father who keeps stumbling/Behind me, and will not go away.’
My father, no academic but a bloody good soldier, and in many ways our salvation (I need not go into details), with all his coarse dependability, became an awkward moment, to be transcended, to be left behind.
Or when I graduated from my degree course. My gramps, an Irishman who came looking for work in the chemical factories in the North East before finding work driving wagons and settling in Stockton, proud enough of my achievement that he had tears in his eyes. I’ll never forget the hug he gave me. It might have even been my first, aged 22 – you didn’t really do that kind of thing in the Merrick family.
The whole tribe came up to Lancaster, and we went for a meal in a little village called Heysham, which was awkward to get to but classier than the Brewers’ Fayre some had suggested and enabled me to show that I was now a bit more upmarket than that. Whilst we were waiting, Gramps and I went for a stroll, settling just along from a rock with graves carved into it, looking out over the sands of Morecambe Bay. I was in heaven. I’ve always idolised my Gramps – he was different, from somewhere else, with stories to tell. And so when we talked, and he began to give his sage advice, I lapped it up. And then he said, without hint of humour or irony, ‘Michael, you’re a bright boy – have you ever thought about running a pub?’ As my memory tells it, I guffawed, and assured him I had my sights set on greater things. He fell quiet and, after five minutes or so looking out to sea, we made our way back for the meal.
His Dad, it turns out, my great-grandad, ran a pub. In Dublin. And his Dad, my great-grandad, was a great man, a source of pride.
I had just guffawed.
Or with my other Grandad, a bluff Yorkshireman from Wakefield who drove wagons his whole life. We sat in his front room, a three-bedroomed former council house in Pendlebury, Salford. He enjoyed films, did my Grandad. And so when I asked, he started telling me about the ones he liked best. Pretty soon I launched into a monologue about my favourites, all of them foreign language films, airily pronouncing on their artistic qualities, the more obscure and niche the better; Satantango, Russian Ark, Yojimbo, Roma città aperta, Dekalog. I asked him if he’d seen them, and when he said he hadn’t I suggested he lend them (I’d just been to the Trafford Centre and bought a load from HMV), and was mystified when he said no. In the end, with a smile, he gently assured me ‘I’m not into all that,’ and gazed back at the television screen, flicking through what was on and settling for CSI Miami.
I don’t know if these were my favourite films. Maybe they were at the time, though to be honest I doubt it. Looking back, this was about status. Me, the smart-arse, the graduate, the one who went to university, lording it over my Grandad, in his own sitting room. I asked my Dad about this other day, suggesting I was perhaps unbearable after university. He smiled, a sympathetic, loving smile: ‘well, sometimes maybe.’
I had been the first to go to university in my family, on both sides, save for my grandmother’s brother, an outlier whose name was spoken in hushed tones, and whom I had never met because like all clever people he had moved away and was different from us now. And I thought that could be me. It came with a fight – I had had to quit professional football to go to university, much to the incomprehension of various family members, especially when it became clear I was studying Theology (‘do you want to be a priest or what?). In the end, I think I enjoyed the mystique. I was being just like my ‘uncle’ Tony.
And yet, for all I was quietly rejecting them, they never rejected me. I was one of them, even if I increasingly gave the impression of not wanting to be. I was ‘our Mike’, and forever would be. And as time has gone by, I realise how intensely proud I am of them, and of the great fortune it is to have been raised as a working-class kid, as one of them. This background was not an obstacle to be overcome, which is what arguments for social mobility nearly always collapse into, but a fertile soil in which to plant the seeds of future success. It is only with passing years, and the challenges that come with raising your own children, that such issues find a way back to the now, to be chewed over and answered once again, ugly truths and all.
All of this might, of course, hold no greater lesson than my own deficiencies as a human being. I’m happy to acknowledge I have plenty of them. And maybe this post would have been more accurately entitled ‘Gentle Regrets’ or ‘Confessions of an Arrogant Fool.’ But if this is the case, I suspect I share the platform with plenty of others. And this whole thought process was kicked off by the following series of tweets, by Mike Tyler, tweets that resonated with me.
See, that was me. I was those graduates. Much to my shame, I thought that was the character of being educated. And maybe, at times, I still do. Blood is thicker than water, but professional and social respectability is a powerful confounding variable. My own kids have a different childhood from the one I had –so am I rejecting it, or building on it? I can’t honestly say I know the answer to that question. And when you dwell on that loss of identity, of simple surety, it can cut deep. When others tread all over it, it stings.
Neither Here nor There
It is a long established truth that graduates tend to be much more liberal than their non-graduate compatriots. Indeed, since the referendum, plenty on the Remain have been quick to point out the education gap between Leave voters and themselves. The observation is innocent enough, though it too often contains all the smirk and subtext of that teacher from my youth.
Thus the graduate professions take on a particular character, with norms of outlook, of worldview, indeed of morality. The moral compass of the liberal outlook is distinct from the conservative, and these things split broadly over class, which correlates with level of education; these tribes value different things, draw lines in different places. But when the deck is stacked so heavily toward one over the other, the chances of any effort to comprehend the difference diminish whilst self-certainty proliferates. And liberals, contrary to assumption, tend to be as intolerant as conservatives, who have a broader moral outlook, though less understanding of the conservative viewpoint than the other way round. In a profession which is graduate dominated, and with graduate-level education so tightly correlated with liberal outlook, so we might see the roots of an important disconnect. Conformity to the norms of the in-group becomes the mark of the sophisticated, the cultured, the educated. And transgression comes at a cost.
As such, if you arrive from a working-class background shaped by these subversive norms, the graduate professions are not always a comfortable place to be. You must grow accustomed to the objects of derision and mockery being people like your family, those you grew up with, those you know and love. Whilst the derision might be delivered in the abstract – against a general viewpoint or unidentified Other – the barbs are felt personally. The word bigot, or any of its linguistic manifestations, is chucked about casually, but it hits specific targets, especially when it addresses a common viewpoint amongst those who comprise your upbringing. Those ‘xenophobes’ and ‘racists’ who voted Leave, for example, are not disembodied, theoretical people, but those who you know to be nothing of the sort, such as grandparents, who were always so loving and kind, and parents, who have lived a life of service to others, friends, who are decent and hardworking, the folks who live next door, the lady who you see at Church each week, the priest who baptised your kids. It becomes personal, and it jars.
But with public affirmation of in-group norms comes prestige – in the echo chamber of social media, there is status to be acquired through the sassy, the rude, the downright spiteful to working-class folk with more conservative views, on immigration, perhaps, or crime, or Brexit. An army of followers giddily RT and ‘Like’ such comments, as if their articulacy were evidence of their truth and justification for their prejudice. Thus the motes are plucked out whilst the beams remain – the cultured despisers find in their intellectual superiority a justification of their presumed existential superiority, too.
They say in comedy that you should never punch down because it makes you look a bully, though this does not seem to be a moderating influence when there is a witty observation to be delivered highlighting deficiencies of the ‘deplorables.’ I remember attending a Diversity course as a GTP trainee, delivered through a series of dramas and roleplays. It was a good day and I learned plenty, particularly about the importance and power of language – something I grappled with here – though it was noticeable that each time a bigot was portrayed in a drama, they had a strong regional accent and performed a manual trade, with uniform and props to match. When I asked about the apparent incongruity I was told, in a stuttering response, that this simply reflected real life. Prejudice, indeed.
There is nothing particularly new in this, and since most culture-forming and socially prestigious professions are graduate dominated, so the outlooks and assumptions are reflected back and reinforced, presenting a wall of affirmation through which any dissent is proof that someone is Not Like Us, and thus wrong. And from this, the belief that it is a duty to help future generations avoid such a fate, and become more Like Us, and thus right.
In our schools, this has real consequences – as I have explored here and here – creating a representation vacuum as a class of Anywheres seek to educate a generation of Somewheres, Pioneers against Settlers, with the former holding all the power and believing professional success consists in educating the latter out of the values and culture of their upbringing. Pupils from a socially conservative background, which often (not always) overlaps with a working-class (or religious) background, will at times find themselves at odds with the ethical and moral paradigms of those who educate them, a culture chasm always framed as simply a matter of education (or the absence of it). And so the cycle starts over, an abiding tension between home and school, since in this case to be educated is to leave behind what you hear and are taught at home.
But some do choose home. Not because of a lack of learning but because of a refusal to shed heritage and home as the participation fee. If we want to talk about why working-class kids are alienated from education, we could do worse than start a conversation there. That those who agitate so fiercely for social justice, and write and speak so piously about the disenfranchisement of the working class, should choose to studiously ignore this particular deficit, and indeed locate their own virtue in the perpetuation of it, tells us a lot about the intractability of the culture clash we accommodate.
Of course, it follows that the same is true with teachers, though perhaps more acutely, since the heresies of those within are more serious than the ignorance of those without – the latter is tragedy, the former is malice. During Brexit, half a dozen teachers confessed to me that they voted Leave, all by DM, and all saying they did not dare say so publicly. To date, I’m only aware of one having since revealed their vote. And yesterday, in response to a question about one thing that Twitter had changed your mind on, one person DMed and said abortion, but they could never admit this publicly.
I’m not sure such conformism can be described as an evident good, nor the surest sign of a good education. The current creation myth of the teaching profession is one of a virtuous battle against intolerance, bigotry and demonization of the Other – yet those who pursue such accounts of virtue do not always realise, or do not care, that these are precisely the sins they commit in the eyes of those on the receiving end of their evangelism.
And yet… it is more complex than a simple to-and-fro between two competing accounts of the good life, a power play with only one plausible winner. Neither side are entirely wrong, even if heart battles fiercely with head in trying to work out the worst of the two. If you join the affray from a working-class background, you inevitably have a foot in both camps. One may get defensive when those whom you know and love are targets of censure, but you also carry the knowledge that, in some sense, you also chose to leave this tribe behind. And, uncomfortable as it might be, one can also see the validity of some of the analysis, even if its descent into moral judgement and lack of charity becomes sufficient motivation for fighting it. Some might call this contrarianism, but maybe it is something more primal than that. We often see the faults in those we love, but we naturally get defensive if somebody from the outside decides to make it an object of their own crusade. Maybe the same applies here.
Needless to say, this high-minded detachment does not solve the feeling of disconnect. For a working-class kid in a graduate profession, having a foot in both camps mean not really belonging in either, an outsider to each, wishing it did not have to be either-or but finding it difficult to see how it might be otherwise. The norms of one are the enemy of the other. One might mourn the perceived conflict of heritage or professional flourishing, but it is difficult to deny. The world that formed you, that helped you fly, can be the world that holds you back, a world which you both reject(ed) and embrace at the same time. And it is always the rejection that each side of this conflict remembers, never the embrace.
And so you crash along, feeling like an imposter wherever you stand, looking for allies in the cause. But it can be a lonely place. And who wants to be lonely?
Curriculum (re-)design is again in fashion, as inspectors and inspected alike recognise what should have always been obvious: that what we teach is equally as fundamental, likely more so, than how we teach.
Cue a flurry of activity from leaders and middle-leaders, getting back to fundamentals and looking once again at neglected and tired schemes of work, asking how we might be more ambitious, more attentive, and indeed more inspired by the subjects we love, or at least once loved, when we were still allowed to do so.
And what a wonderful development that is.
But as we tread the path to curriculum excellence, a central truth must be upheld: the curriculum is not just an academic matter, and the writing of it even less so.
Knowing What to Value
What we teach is a distillation of that which we deem worthy for future transmission. And not all those choices are strictly utilitarian – or at least they ought not to be. Populating the curriculum necessarily involves value judgements on the part of those tasked with constructing it; those judgements reveal something of the person creating it, the world they inhabit, or the world they wish to inhabit.
And this is important. Those tasked with fashioning a curriculum bear the heavy responsibility of creating the intellectual landscape of a domain we wish our pupils to experience, even if they choose to ultimately reject it. Its aesthetic, its values, its very temperament – a world pupils might not otherwise choose to aspire toward, or at very least might not otherwise fully appreciate. In a very real sense, designing a curriculum is therefore as much a spiritual reflection as an academic one.
This brings controversy, of course, since it cannot avoid value judgment, and one can well understand the challenge of those who argue that the move toward core knowledge can be exclusionary, or that it privileges particular kinds of knowledge over others, or that its aesthetic can be of a marginalising hue – from a particular perspective, there is a valid argument to be met here (see my previous post on one potential perspective here).After all, if one deems a core knowledge curriculum to consist of art and culture beyond the parochial boundaries of place, or deems cultural literacy to consist primarily in knowledgeable articulacy of the contemporary, certainly more than the past, then clearly an alternative vision exists to the one most commonly proffered, and needs to be taken account of.
I’m not sure how often we see that challenge accepted. Curriculum development often appears to proceed without acknowledgment of an argument that concerns its very soul, sometimes ignoring altogether, other times attempting a cross-fertilisation to avoid accusations of the chauvinistic. One might well understand why: this is a minefield, strewn with the traps of politics and identity. But also, because it requires one to retreat back to first principles and ask the most basic questions: if the core curriculum goes hand in hand with developing cultural literacy, then what comprises this culture? And should we only focus on this culture? And what is our aim in seeking to transmit this culture to the next generation?
The Moral Dimension
Potential responses only outline the space for future dialogue, rather than providing a comprehensive answer. The curriculum is the capture of a process, the staging post of cumulative decisions and experiences coming together to form a proposed canon of knowledge. It is the principles guiding these footsteps which offer the best chance of fruitful dialogue.
And so, they begin: are curriculum decisions made with utility in mind – to help ensure future employability and the ability to hold one’s own, in general society as much as in esteemed company? Is it identitarian – to infuse children with the fruits and intellectual architecture of the culture in which they are being formed, the better to increase their attachment to it? Is it simple familiarity – those things which, through time and fashion, have traditionally comprised a liberal education and have long been seen as constituent parts of a quality curriculum? Is it resurrecting a memory – choosing a canon based on its resonance with a particular past, offering pupils ways of finding meaning in the cultural landscape around them? Or is it spiritual – to form the children in front of us and help them inhabit a worldview, a manner of being, which might otherwise remain alien to them?
A collection of all these? Or something else entirely?
The latter might be considered out of place, a soteriological cherry on top of what is otherwise a utilitarian project, by varying degrees, and there are those who would claim such an ambition is an act of oppression, taking upon itself an intimate concern with the soul that should properly be beyond the remit of the school. I am not sure this can really be upheld as a novel exercise – all schools do it, even those who deem themselves most devoutly secular, from content taught to rules administered to values upheld (children from socially conservative traditions, and with socially conservative views, will experience this most acutely in our schools today).
As such, the question is not whether the curriculum is in some sense shaped by a prior moral or spiritual commitment, or even whether it should, but rather which it should be – and how we should decide. Howsoever one finally chooses to answer that question, the issue of content selection as co-constructing that project is never far away, but it most properly follows the prior vision, rather than preceding it.
In a world of busy-ness and deadlines, the time to reflect on such matters can seem indulgent, even should the desire exist to do so – better to simply chuck all the ingredients in and get the job done. But avoiding these questions, or tactfully choosing not to consider them, only gives justification to those who would maintain that our curricula do not represent expanding horizons, but expanding certain horizons, whilst leaving others unattended – with the interlocutor free to speculate for themselves the underlying reasons for any omission. And whilst time is finite, and decisions must be made as to what makes the cut, this is of course understandable. It is not unfair for detractors to ask on what basis curriculum decisions are made.
Looking around, it can sometimes feel as if curriculum improvement consists primarily of simply adding more stuff. This is clearly problematic – it is one thing associating challenge with quantity, but if there is no underlying coherence (important for both the learning and the remembering) to weave such knowledge together then the curriculum lacks authenticity, and gives to those charged with teaching it or learning it no justification for doing so, beyond personal fiat – the determination of a particular Head, at a particular time. Here, the curriculum risks losing its inner dignity, becoming an atomised collection of things, ready to fall apart once the authority of the person insisting upon it ceases to be its sufficient cause.
The focus on content accumulation, on simple quantity, risks turning knowledge into just another consumer product, in which the capacity to consume and one’s accumulated consumption becomes a social signifier and sign of success. And the more glamorous the consumption, the more niche the diet, the better, not because of the interior quality of what is consumed, but because of the status associated with the ability to acquire the exotic.
However, in elevating knowledge consumption by quantity to prestige status, we risk a sort of consumerist kitsch, choosing knowledge not to enhance or nourish, but to impress, to define oneself, to affirm status and the ability to consume and to have consumed – knowledge as performance, as spectacle, knowledge as bling.I’m not convinced this approach has longevity beyond the personality of the individual leader insisting upon it, lacking meaning since it lacks telos – something which underpinned the motivations of those tasked with creating curricula and composing the canonical in ages past. When King Alfred completed his project of translating particular works into English, and insisted upon their distribution and even their reading, he did so not because of a desire to simply fill a neutral pot called knowledge, where the fuller it became the better, but instead because those works were ‘most necessary for all men to know.’ The justification, the enlivening principle, was formation, not a gluttonous accumulation. It was anticipated that the wealth of wisdom could flow from reading these texts, from knowing these principles, to the benefit of both the individual and society.
Whilst exposure to a broader variety of knowledge is certainly a starting point, and learning for learning sake is a virtue to be rehabilitated, this is not a permission slip for some sort of educational nihilism, either for pragmatic purposes or ideological: the question of ‘why?’ has to remain central. Only once this has occurred might one get down to better considering the what, and justifying the discrimination (in the literal sense) necessarily involved in defining it. Because in a finite world, or more specifically a 25 hour timetable, one must indeed be discriminatory in choosing what to include over the myriad other things that could have been included. And one best have in mind the reasons for doing so. Only here can one find the dignity of the curriculum, beyond fiat and fashion, to develop a coherence worthy of the formative years of our children.
The elephant in the room here is the demand placed upon schools by our accountability system, and the pragmatic necessity for highest possible exam performance. This has been left alone not because it is deemed to be of lesser moral worth – I tend to agree that the best we can do for our children is to deliver an education which enables them to achieve excellent exam grades – but because curriculum development is in some sense leading the way over qualifications, being at once more ambitious and more aware of the principled necessity of a broad and high-quality curriculum.
And this is as it should be – examinations capture a slice of what has been taught; they should not become the outer limits of what we teach.
Here’s hoping, then, that the current race toward curriculum improvement proceeds with a clear commitment to an underlying coherence. Or else we’re just playing at this. And however politically astute that might be, and however much professional prestige and career advancement people might find tied up with it, it shall nonetheless be destined to crumble with the passage of time, when, as inevitably happens, people ask why we study this, and do not study that, before realising that we have neglected to ever give an answer.