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The Challenge of Traditionalism

‘Traditionalism’, so far as that label catches anything, has had something of a fraught time of late. It has been put to all manner of uses, positive and negative, from those who seek to attach legacy and prestige to their latest innovation, to those who wish to dismiss a proposition by rendering it already unworthy of consideration. Still, if words mean things, then we might as well try and find agreement on what they mean, lest we simply talk past each other even whilst claiming to debate.

To my mind, traditionalism is a positive moral vision more than a pedagogical claim (I don’t like the term, but that’s for another blogpost). Of course the latter can and often does flow from the former, but ultimately it is a code which allows more pedagogical freedom than it does ethical. Or put another way, virtue-signalling about VAK need not make one a traditionalist, but maintaining the teacher/taught relationship is rightly shaped by particular accounts of authority and obedience probably does. Thus the split, between those who might claim to be traditionalist because their pedagogical preferences neatly align with what has been labelled as such, even whilst dissenting from the ethical and moral underpinnings of traditionalism itself.

Of course, not everybody agrees with the detail of that moral vision, and the features of its claims are more often implied than explicitly stated. Partly this is because one risks an unsympathetic and indeed hostile reception in declaring oneself an advocate (‘shy traddies’ are a thing too, mostly confined to DMs); partly because of this tendency to force the discussion into tick-list claims about classroom practice. Further, there is space for competing, if broadly united, accounts – no catechetical formula exists to which one can simply subscribe.

Still, that there exists something approaching coherence, and that this is identifiable across particular interpretations, casts its shadow and demands opponents take account. And ultimately it must provoke a reaction – sometimes rational, sometimes emotional –  from those who recognise that the challenge it offers is not a debate about process, but a positive claim about reality. And not an inconsequential claim, but one that strikes at the very heart of the presumptions and beliefs of many an educationalist.

Of what does it consist? As tricky as this is, common themes present themselves, and we can identify just a few here. Particular accounts of hierarchy – of knowledge, especially, but also relationships and status – can certainly be found, whilst the virtues of authority and discipline are recognised and build upon the frameworks put in place by those hierarchies (some insist there is a straw man here, and maintain they too favour authority and discipline, though in a manner so fundamentally unlike as to make the suggestion appear more rhetorical convenience than serious claim).

The capacity to legitimately judge between competing truths, and indeed the moral duty to do so, is also affirmed – not only in the realm of fact, but also judgment; that the correct and the incorrect, the right and the wrong, actually exists, and are not all simple expressions of individual preference or habit, and that we should seek one over the other. Similarly, the belief that a canon should exist, and is constructive of who we are, and should be passed down to the next generation for nourishment, and that there is virtue in both the bequeathing and the inheritance. And of course, the long view – that education should stand aloof from the transience of the now, or the demands of the market, or the convenience of the employer, and instead cherish the gifts of our forebears as of inherent worth – artistic, aesthetic, moral – with value to our ongoing and changing conversation about who we are and what we believe.

Which brings us, almost inexorably, to Michaela School, as so many current education debates tend to do. Whilst I would not wish to put words into the mouth of Michaela School, or make claims about it that are misjudged or inaccurate, it is from here that I believe the Michaela project, or more precisely what it embodies, has such value, and the reason why it draws such stark reactions. In short, Michaela has not billed itself simply as creators and exporters of a particularly efficient model of practice, though it might also wish to claim that; it has instead openly advocated a moral vision, not only of learning, but of society itself, and the relationships that reside there.

And it jars. Badly. Comparisons that have been made, whether later defended as being in jest or not – with Nazism, with fascism – are the protests of a group who instinctively recognise the fundamental moral challenge Michaela has set, but who lack the ethical and even linguistic categories to meet that challenge. This traditionalism, banished from normative discourse within the education sector and university departments for so long, presents itself as simply alien: when faced with something that defies normative categorisation, the imprecise and the hyperbolic is simply what comes most easily to hand. There is no abiding guilt in this, and perhaps even reason to celebrate – it at least shows the magnitude of what is at stake truth has been grasped, even if instinctively.

To my mind, Michaela are doing what a traditionalist education must do if it is to stand in a system so generally ill-disposed toward it – it draws a line in the sand and invites its interlocutors to make their choice. In this sense, Michaela embodies a very real culture war in education, even it is not the one that dominates our largely technocratic discussions, debating the efficiency of group work or the effectiveness of drill – it is about the fundamentals: who are we? how should we live? how do we know?

I should add at this point that, whilst I have sympathy for the Michaela project, I cannot say I agree with all of its offer, so far as I understand/know what that is, though without having visited I could not claim to base my view on anything more substantial than what I have read to date. For example, as much as I commend Michaela’s recovery of the inherent value of knowing, and the worth of our literary and artistic inheritance, and the absolute ethical claim that all citizens (regardless of wealth or background) have on that shared inheritance, I do nonetheless wonder if it can be prone to the educational kitsch, rooting itself in the superficialities of broad knowledge as a safer bet against the controversies of deeper wisdom. But then, I’m a Catholic, who defends and advocates the unique gifts of Catholic education – I would say that.

Nonetheless, so far as traditionalism offers a competing vision of society and those who comprise it, a vision largely redundant in the state sector, then Michaela’s foray is to be welcomed. The impacts of traditionalist dormancy have been keenly felt, especially in those layers of society for whom such an absence can be all the more life-constricting. If Chesterton, Burke, and even Tacitus were all right that moral laxity is always to the benefit of the already powerful, and if traditionalism is indeed a moral account that counsels against such (educational) laxity, then one might tease out an explanation of why that might be the case. In education, as in society, demands to cast aside strictures ring loudest from the mouths of those best sheltered from its social consequences – what some use as ladders, others declare to be chains. And the poorest really have lost out here; Gove’s liberal authoritarianism at least recognised this, even if his cure was to cast aside as irrelevant those contextual features that were actually fundamental to the insight.

So far as traditionalism in education means anything, then, I hope the debate can coalesce around these moral claims, since focusing on the pedagogical is ultimately a hostage to fortune that elevates an inexact science into certitude and leaves us prone to the fashions of research and the politics that reside therein. We should know why we do what we do, before constructing the system to deliver it, informed by research but not captured by it – without that, teaching is just task design, and we, the teachers, become marginal players in a drama that is not ours.

Liberty and faith: a defence of church schools

This article first appeared in the online Fabian Review on November 2016. It can be accessed here.

 

As Catholics who teach in Catholic schools, we must necessarily approach the church school debate with an air of resignation, sure in the knowledge that we will be deemed from the outset to be unfit to comment. After all, it is hard to escape the claim of vested interest, even if we might gently remind our interlocutors that the action follows the thought, rather than the other way round.

What’s more, those who would diminish the contribution of church schools to the collective life of our nation do so from a perceived perspective of neutrality. Whilst we might challenge the easy assumptions of those who would so readily equate the secular with the neutral, nonetheless we must proceed, and will do so here by choosing a single argument, from amongst the many that exist in defence of church schools, though one perhaps less well aired than it otherwise might be: a society in which church schools exist is a freer and more worthy society than one in which they are eradicated, in so much as their existence preserves the rights of parents to educate their offspring according to the values and beliefs that they see fit.

It is useful first to add historic landscape to our claims. Church schools were established long before the state took an interest in education, often founded explicitly for the education and spiritual succour of the most vulnerable. Churches blazed the trail for expansion of education provision beyond circles of privilege, an engagement that assisted in the broad development of an educated proletariat, an entwining with the most vulnerable still discernible in the geographic dispersal of Catholic schools today. Little wonder, then, that Labour historically supported church schools – we long ministered to the same constituency.

In other words, the Christian churches provided education in this country long before the state decided to join their efforts – that they should now find themselves having to defend their status not for what they do well, but for the fact that they do it at all, can only be read as an authoritarianism designed not for the common good but the satiation of a secular crusade.

And it is intriguing how easily that secular crusade is willing to tread on the toes of liberties long embedded within society, indeed long admired within left-wing thought, which built its critique of capitalism on concepts of positive liberty, contra the negative liberty of the social and economic free-marketeers.

This brings us back to our central claim, one best elucidated through recourse to a central Catholic belief that education is primarily the responsibility of the parent, with which the state assists. More directly: church schools are the living embodiment of a principle that a free society must keep foremost in its thoughts.

In recent years, there has been a slow transformation of the relationship between the state and the family, and the rights of parents and indeed the state in relation to that family. This is particularly discernible within education, specifically discourse surrounding that cherished goal of social mobility, within which one most explicitly detects the intention to ‘rescue’ children from the culture and values of their upbringing – which most often means from their working-class backgrounds. Some might argue this is the natural and justifiable consequence of the state seeking better outcomes for its citizens, though the thorny issue of quite what constitutes better outcomes rarely acquaints itself with the purifying influence of critical debate.

Still, it is from this vantage point that some feel emboldened to deny the rights of parents in relation to the education of their child, often under the guise of fallacious arguments ranging from the absurd (church schools indoctrinate children) to the ridiculous (church schools are a form of child abuse). One could write an entire essay debunking these claims and many others – counter to the data-dubious claims of many, our schools are actually more racially and socially diverse than their non-church counterparts, for example – though the point pursued here is broader: we ought to think carefully before casting aside the fundamental rights of the family, in particular the rights of those of faith to continue to have their child educated within the faith tradition of their heritage.

It is, after all, an odd definition of liberty that would declare that this should not be so. And whilst we can admit that drawing facile comparisons with a series of fantastical cults might establish a rhetorical point (‘well why not let Satanists have their own schools too?’), it does little to establish a rational one.

In truth, so much opposition emanates from a fundamentally inaccurate account of what happens within church schools, and a wholly distorted account of what we seek to achieve by having them. In short, we educate because we do it well, from an ethic of service, enlivened by philosophical and ethical frameworks forged over millennia and tested for centuries; there seems to be plenty of evidence to support our confidence and justify our inclusion.

As such, we must seek to balance priorities – the freedom of the family to organise itself, within reasonable limits, according to its own values and beliefs, overrides the determination, however well-intentioned, of those who hold to a different set of beliefs and seek to impose them on that same family.

This is not to say that interventions should never be entertained, or that parental choices are forever beyond the reach of the state – clearly sober judgment is to be made. Still, we might confidently suggest that Catholic and Church of England schools – which comprise the vast majority of church schools in the UK – fall on the right side of that judgment.

Indeed, for us Catholics the argument takes on added poignancy: we had to, and still must, fight for those liberties that others might take for granted – our own shot at the good life has been dearly bought. It was in the face of prejudice that we founded our schools – both to counter social discrimination that Catholic families, often immigrants, faced within wider society, and to put in place a positive vision of what we think education is and what can be offered when we deliver it.

Which brings us neatly to our concluding point, with an appeal once again to liberty: those who wish to deny the rights of church schools to exist must reconcile themselves with the fact that the achievement of their aim could only be pursued by the most illiberal of means. The vast majority of Catholic schools are Voluntary Aided: the land on which they are built, and very often the buildings that reside there, are the property of the Church, which must also contribute to the upkeep and maintenance of those schools. To reverse this situation one must either confiscate, or cut off funding and imperil the education of hundreds of thousands of children, or purchase that land and those buildings. Since the latter two options appear less than likely, one would be left with an option that, hundreds of years after a similar intrusion, one might hope would never seriously be entertained.

This debate deserves more words than are available in this short piece, and is more wide-ranging than those limited arguments, offered without consideration of counterpoints, that we have briefly explored here. Nonetheless, focusing on the single principle of parental rights and historic liberties, we commend to you a simple truth: church schools are part of and co-creators of a healthy, generous, more tolerant society.

To strike at that would be to strike at the roots of what we consider best in ourselves.

 

Michael Merrick and Chris Wilkins – teacher and Executive Headteacher of the St. Ninian Catholic Federation, Carlisle.

The Limits of Aspiration

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

 

Aspiration

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.

Links

The Ordinary Teacher

The Myth of Maximal Efficiency 

The Dignity of Being a Teacher

The NeoTraddie Revolution

 

 

 

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?

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.