Scrabbling to catch up? What a failure of our imagination.
Posted on June 10, 2020
Somewhere along the line, I must have missed something.
It now appears that members of the Tory government lie awake at night fretting about the educational disadvantage suffered by thousands of schoolchildren. Who’d have thought it, what with them pouring the wealth of one of the richest nations of the world into schools with such reckless abandon for so long?
Maybe we ought to cut them some slack in these troubled times and allow ourselves to treat this concern in good faith. Let’s put aside their inbuilt, hard-wired refusal to listen to people who actually know stuff and concede that their arbitrary target for opening schools (they just love a target) was bred of genuine anxiety about children’s welfare. Even if we exercise such grace, it’s hard to take them seriously.
Children, they tell us, will need to ‘catch up’. Catch up to what? Catch up with whom? Catch up for what purpose? What’s the race – and what time is the cut-off point for stragglers?
This notion that education is a linear process with milestones firmly embedded along the way, the missing of which constitutes dangerous failure, is as ridiculous as it is outdated. In a post-pandemic world, it is genuinely absurd. Let me give you two examples of what I mean.
The TV coverage of the current attempt to return to school always shows the same thing. The camera pans across a sparse classroom to show desks, sometimes occupied by children, carefully spaced at governmentally -approved distances. Sometimes there’s a teacher doing her stuff at the front. There’s a problem here.
In the current circumstances, and especially at this time of year, the very last place children need to be in order to be educated is at a desk. Just in case we hadn’t noticed, the world around them has just been turned upside down. They need to talk, play, be outside, read, write and draw…..and to be fair to many teachers, I know this is exactly what they’re doing, despite the camera-shot cliché. It may not look like proper catching-up ‘work’ but anyone who knows anything about pedagogy and child development will tell you otherwise.
Then we have the unease about exam results: how are we going to manage without them? Will children get what they deserve? Can we trust teachers to give accurate assessments? Well, that last one’s a very interesting question.
Broadly speaking, when we ask physicians for an assessment of our condition, we trust that we’ll get a judgement given in good faith. And why on earth would that physician want, or need, to fiddle about with that result? Does s/he require a particular number of recoveries from athletes’ foot to be tabulated, registered and placed in public league tables? Will the reputation of that practice, possibly in a deprived, challenged location, be under scrutiny? Will the funding allocated to it be under threat? For schools and teachers, these ridiculous questions loom daily over their professional existence.
We need the grades to get the reputation to get the numbers to get the Ofsted report to get the pay rise to get the promotion to ensure our survival and put a banner outside to tell everyone how well we’ve done. So, kids, sit down, face the front, get your head down and get
me and the school yourself the best grades you can.
It may be an old-fashioned idea, but if we removed the outdated, ridiculous notion of all children developing in the same ways and at the same time – and then judging schools by how well they conform to this rigid framework – we might just allow ourselves to trust the judgments of those people trained to teach our young people. All it requires is some genuine planning, forethought and imagination…….and I’ll know you’ll be ahead of me here, these are qualities that have been in tragically short supply in our current rulers.
You know times have changed when you feel yourself nodding along while listening to your old enemies. Twenty-five years ago, David Blunkett, before he became the minister for education, accused me and some of my friends of locking him and his guide dog in a cupboard. As colourful a story as this was, it wasn’t true, but it was an illustration of the deep-seated distrust between him and the teaching profession. This animosity has clearly not receded on his part. In recent weeks he has lined up with the Tory press to condemn ‘militant teacher unions’ for blocking the return to schools. But speaking on the radio this week, he got one thing absolutely spot on – we are approaching this important question devoid of energy, vision and….that word again – imagination.
As far as Blunkett is concerned, this extends to the use of dormant office spaces and the recruitment of retired professionals – both of which are perfectly reasonable suggestions. He talks of split-shifts, maybe even reconsidering the holy-writ of teaching solely in year groups. If we can knock up Nightingale Hospitals, why not the schools’ equivalent?
To be clear, I still don’t agree with all he says and I’m pretty sure he wouldn’t take the leap and accept that teacher assessments could be superior to set examinations. But at least he emphasised the notion that we can’t saddle ourselves with the idea that all we’re accustomed to is how things need to be in the future. As with so many aspects of our lives, we’ve been given a breathing space to envisage ways of doing things that are liberated from entrenched practice which fails to work for the majority.
Here’s an idea. Maybe ask the people who know about children and how they learn and develop and then act on their knowledge and experience. It may be a first but we might even give ourselves a chance of catching up with whatever it is we’ve not yet reached.