Last week, I heard a curious story. One which, I believe, is absolutely true. What I was told is I think symptomatic of the current dysfunction in education.
The tale revolves around a well-respected Maths teacher who has been at his current school for some time. He knows his students well, and they obviously like him. As a result, he has been receiving request after request from students, some asking him for some extra help, some to check over their work, some for words of advice. Rather than trying to fit these in at ends of lessons, lunch breaks etc, he decided it might be better to organise a drop-in session at the end of the day. He would be available for an hour, students would know this, and they would come along for extra assistance.
All fine, surely? Well, apparently not. Because when the teacher sought permission from his senior leadership team, he was told he couldn’t go ahead with the drop-in session, under any circumstances. And the reason?
Because what he would be doing was not measurable.
Instead, remote tuition was procured from tutors beamed in from London at a considerable cost. Whilst the students donned their headphones, our teacher was sitting unused on the bench. This same teacher who knows the students well, who is giving up his time for free, and able to use the knowledge from the drop-ins to inform his teaching.
Bizarre, but true.
The thing is, it doesn’t surprise me. Slowly but surely, over a period of twenty of so years, school leaders have become drugged into thinking their work is only valuable if validated by measurable data. If it’s not measurable, it doesn’t count.
In other blogs, I’ve referred to how unreliable this measurable data is. And it continues to be, even more so since the pandemic. It’s a tragedy that we have passed over this perfect opportunity to rid the system of the poisonous thirst for data.
Worse still, everything else seems to have succumbed to this ‘scientification’ of learning. The curriculum cannot be meaningful if it does not run in some linear track through a child’s brain. Teachers are chastised for doing anything that is not part of a perfect sequence of learning. Consistency is the God we worship, cognitive load and retrieval theory are disciples, Barak Rosenshine the prophet. Any dissenting voices are locked in the stocks and scorned.
As a result, we are in danger of depriving children of excitement, inspiration, of moments of collective joy. Of fun, humour, eccentricity and happiness. If there is a mental health crisis amongst our young as everyone keeps telling me (I’m not so sure), it’s possibly because schools have become such joyless, austere, sanitised places, pursuing some holy grail of consistency that desensitises even the most lively child.
This is not to say that knowledge is not important, nor that consistency is a waste of time. Consistency is vital for behaviour, attitudes, safety and the smooth running of the school. But leaders should exercise some judgement as to what is simply the right thing to do. A Maths drop-in session, led by a respected and skilled teacher, fits into that category. Just go ahead, help the pupils, and to hell with the measurement.
There are glimmers of hope. Raymond Friel, on Twitter, reflecting on the recent conference for the Confederation of School Trusts, quotes their chair Leona Cruddas talking about ‘the mobilisation of education as a cause for human flourishing’ whilst educational writers such as Mary Myatt constantly refer to the value of beautiful work for its own sake. Flourishing, beautiful work – this can’t be accurately measured as it’s often very subjective.
On Thursday, we had two professional musicians from the Liverpool Philharmonic engaged in music therapy with some of our pupils with multiple needs. Can you measure that? Isn’t it possible just to look on and be moved by it, moved to tears as a visitor was that morning.
It’s a strange state of affairs. Rather than coming out of the pandemic enlightened with a renewed sense of purpose and mission (which I where I find myself), school leaders seem to be frightened, rendering school Twitter accounts as a sort of Ofsted curricular evidence base instead of just celebrating the joy of a happy school community. For everything has to be measured, at the altar of Ofsted or the DfE. The fear is everywhere.
I suspect we are in a period of bewildering change, and leaders want to cling to something that is familiar. And you can’t blame them; it is incredibly difficult at the moment.
But surely we can do better than rolling over to this regressive, unambitious system of quasi-audit and control?
Trust in your instincts, go with the enthusiasm and talents of the staff, and let the pen-pushers do the measuring.
I’m all for drop-ins. Because if not, we’ll all be drop-outs.