Radical Change

‘To grow is to change, and to change often is to become more perfect.’

(Cardinal John Henry Newman)

Since the pupils have all returned on 8th March, to be brutally honest, I’ve been pretty overwhelmed by the task ahead. To be in education during the 2020s means facing challenges both immediate and intense, but also structural and societal. Now into my fifties, I wonder. Will I have the necessary will, strength and fortitude to meet them? Does anyone else have these fears?

But I have no choice. As a good friend of mine has always said to me, ‘What’s the alternative?’.

On Thursday, I noticed the formation of a Times Education Commission to look at post-pandemic change in education. According to the newspaper, ‘it could lead to radical change across schools and universities.’ The usual suspects are in the group, and I hope they haven’t missed a trick. Bringing in new voices should be paramount, otherwise it may become another echo chamber.

But on the central question, this is exactly what we should be doing. Radical change is what we require.

I abhor the idea of going back to the pre-pandemic paradigm, and will fight tooth and nail to avoid it within my own sphere of influence. Why on earth do we want to show loyalty to an era in which we’ve undermined the civic realm, demoted culture, overseen the decline of the family unit, and got totally lost down a long lane of moral and cultural relativity? Why would I want to continue to drive forward a culture of the individual with no larger loyalties than personal choice and relationships that are purely transactional. The Thatcher years, the managerial New Labour years, the last chaotic decade, they’ve led us to this, even if their legacy has been the result of unintended consequences.

But this is what we have now. And you can see this in education. A competitive market-place touting credentials at all costs, continued vandalism of the arts and cultural education, a lack of investment in the family as primary educators, uncontrollable moral relativity. We’ve reduced the learner to a consumer who can demand their rights to exam success, almost independent of their own agency. We’ve condemned teachers to a life of factory floor production, instead of curating the mastery of their art. And we call this progress?

Look around you. Individual autonomy might be all the rage, but it is pathetically hollow if there is no strong public culture in which it can flourish.

So for me, this is why we need radical change. Here are a few of my own ideas that, were I fortunate to be on the commission, I would be raising. I pick out what I consider are 5 key themes, accompanied by some more practical ideas. I’ve avoided ‘get rid of exams’ type stuff, as such policy decisions would emerge from these larger themes. I also cannot separate educational reform from wider societal reform – the two go in tandem.

  1. Promotion of the Family

Children thrive when parents value their education and formation. They suffer when parents are diverted by their own careers and pleasures more than the responsibilities to their children. And yet our system actively promotes the fracturing of family time. There is hardly any incentive for parents to fully embrace the responsibilities of child formation.

At the same time, I perceive a worrying abandonment of boundaries. Parents, often feeling the pressure around them, consent to so much now that, even as young as six, children are in control of decision-making. This is ludicrous.

Equally as dangerous is the trend to treat our children as our best mates. We inure them from problems, failure and distress. Then, when the children meet the real world with a bang, we announce on social media that they have mental health problems.

However, in sympathy with parents (and I bear my own bruises), the challenges now are unlike anything we’ve faced before, largely due to the ubiquity of the smartphone. Across all class boundaries and socio-economic groups, all parents need help, and there should be no shame in admitting this.

Solution? Bring back Children Centres, give them teeth, marry their work with revitalised health visitors and introduce a three year parenting programme to go through Nursery, Reception and Year 1 age groups, working alongside schools. Non-attendance would lead to financial penalties.

Radical Solution? Pay at least one parent to stay at home with their children for those first 1000 days. If we can furlough millions of people, why can’t we do this? But in return, they would commit to volunteer in school once their child reaches Reception age and act as parent mentors for the next generation.

  • Investment in the Community and the Common Good

Nothing will improve in education unless there is a recognition of the value of community. People need those common links and interactions that provide connection and validation. Crucially, children need them too. It has been unavoidable in a pandemic, incarcerated as we have been at home, but after this we have to create and sustain wider civic systems. One of our local charities, An Hour For Others, knows this so well and is showing remarkable leadership in trying to enhance those connections and networks. It supports those who are most in need, but nurtures them towards a role whereby they end up supporting others too. Because it’s being led from people who live in the same streets, it works.  

We have to incentivise volunteering, be bold in the use of our buildings, and we have to make schools realise that this is part of their brief – providing a central hub from which all the community institutions can network.

On other thing on this. Let’s stop this belief that all kids from less affluent communities need to escape and move a more ‘desirable’ area, all in the name of social mobility. No, we want them and their friends and neighbours to stay and make their communities better and stronger.

Solution? I like the idea of bringing back clubs, co-operatives, societies. People want to belong to something. Continue to incentivise businesses that engage in meaningful corporate social responsibility.

Radical solution? Recast primary schools as centres for lifelong learning, community hubs, and give them a million pounds each year to do it. We’d give the taxpayer an incredible return on their investment.

  • Dignity of the Individual

What irony. Our obsession with individual rights, choices and freedoms has done nothing for respecting the individual, unique and precious as he/she is. It’s had the opposite effect. Perverse consequences.

In our avaricious desire for some joyless (and often crooked) form of success, usually disguised in management target speak, we’ve lost sight of the innate value of each individual. Each of us has been a vehicle in some never-ending game of audit. I’m part of it, and have had to justify it by saying that it pays the bills, so you just go along with it. But it has to end, this fake game of performance management and target-setting.

In seeking 1% gains and maximum efficiency, we’ve lost sight of what life is all about. As Tawney said, ‘To convert efficiency from an instrument to a primary object is to destroy efficiency itself.’ Just ask the cyclists and gymnasts whose extreme efficiency was at the expense of personal dignity and fulfilment.

If we are to retain dignity, confidence and belief as individuals, we cannot be treated in a permanent state of suspicion, part of a surveillance culture that creates thousands of pallid, opaque and expensive jobs, contributing little to the common good.

Solution? Exterminate all management-speak, particularly around performance management. Even if staff are on temporary contracts, or part of what’s called the ‘gig economy’, infuse them with a sense of their value to the organisation, and their value as an individual. Intrinsic value matters.

And be honest. Don’t disguise things up in management speak. Say it as it is, even if it’s critical. People respect that.

Radical Solution? Make sure all CEOs and headteachers have at least a day’s teaching commitment, written into their contract. It will keep them grounded and prevent them being consumed by management-speak and bureaucratic nonsense.

  • Innovation in the use of time.

Why do we assume that we need to go back to a five-day school week, the classic school timetable, to face-to-face classroom teaching at all times? Is this not a chance to explore alternatives? Already, the cars are clogging up the roads (now peppered with potholes) and driving seems a lot worse. As one wag put it, Coronavirus is a PG trailer for the main feature, X-rated ‘Climate Catastrophe’. Even if you are a sceptic of climate change, you will still recgonise the need for altering the habits of our species in order to protect our world.

Even more importantly, we have to promote the spiritual and aesthetic side of our existence. I would argue that people are more angry, embittered and anxious because this part of our being has been devalued, made redundant by banal technology and the drive for efficiency. Physical health has suffered too.

Many private schools have whole afternoons set aside for sports training, for school-to-school fixtures. Enlightened schools have project-based time, or community-based partnerships, or time for orchestras and choirs. And what of the rise of technology? Of course we don’t want the whole curriculum delivered online, but surely a small part could be? How about Fridays being family learning days, supported by school staff over the internet? Imagine no traffic on the roads. Why shouldn’t educational standards not rise as a result, family breakdown reduce, productivity increase?

In education, we have to invest in more time for staff to evaluate, plan, develop and master their art. It’s done in Japan, in Canada, in Singapore, in Finland. It’s a question of redesigning the workforce and investing in its long-term impact. Quality not quantity.

Ask anyone what is their biggest stress from the pre-Covid era, and they will more than often say, ‘I just don’t have the time to do everything.’

Solution. At least explore the potential for allocating time to family learning, supported by technology. A national mini-lockdown each week which sets in place habits to support our planet. Re-focus priorities on those spiritual and aesthetic pursuits which allow all sentient beings to achieve fulfilment and experience joy.

Radical Solution: A national 4-day week, with the fifth day set aside for family learning and community projects, supported by all schools. I doubt productivity would suffer much.

  • Redefinition of Value

This is crucial, recognised as much by economists as by sociologists. Whilst they can offer up theories and policies to change the nature of our economy, leaders in the public sector can champion a renewed definition of value. In education, the awful term ‘value-added’ has reigned supreme, tortuously quantified by progress measures, or hard data.

I cannot for the life of me see what is wrong with measuring and celebrating more personalised and innate examples of value. I will always remember a teaching assistant at a previous school saying to me, ‘What has happened here has saved my marriage.’ Her perception of her value to the organisation had changed her self-belief completely, and she carried this home with her, rather than the stress, anxiety and despair that had previously afflicted her. Imagine the knock-on value to her children, to her wider family, to her community.

We have over one hundred children with special educational needs at our school. Tying the value of their progress at school to some spurious data is both demeaning and disheartening for all involved. The value of their safety, independence, confidence and self-belief in order for them to lead wholesome and fulfilling lives is beyond value. It’s priceless. Just ask their parents.

The public sector doesn’t need any more clapping on the pavement, nor silly lapel badges, but a complete reconception of its value.

Solution: Recalibrate the way audits and inspections are carried out in the public sector, so as to highlight the intrinsic value of teachers, nurses, care workers etc. Still call it out when it’s poor, but shout it out even louder when it’s great. Rid us of data except where it is of internal use.

Radical Solution: This is more of an economical one, and I have no idea how to do this, but we have to redress the balance of pay. In education, we must value the lifelong development of educators, as they do in Japan, Canada, Singapore etc.

So there’s my offering.

OK, Times Education Commission. Over to you.


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