Primary Schools in 2018: Where next?

Blimey, what has happened? What has happened to the school system in the last few years? And where and how do I fit in?

Throughout the entire period of my time as a deputy headteacher or headteacher, I’ve been caught up in the inexorable rise of market technocracy in schools – remarkably, (as I don’t see myself as being that old yet) a period of twenty years in leadership positions.

What do I mean by market technocracy?

  • A belief that setting schools against each other in competition will improve centrally imposed, and ever-changing, ‘standards’.
  • Reducing the work of teachers to a measure of productivity or even payment by results.
  • Creating a whole sector of technocrats who write action plans, conduct audits and evaluations, or manage performance indicators. They work alongside another group who facilitate grants, bids and funds in an effort to exert further control.
  • One the one hand, controlling schools through the use of arbitrary indicators, yet on the other ‘setting schools free’ of traditional networks and collaborations.
  • Seeing the educative process as a direct route to economic or industrial performance. Its only value is to the national economy, often viewed through the prism of short-term gain.

Dame Onora O’Neill eloquently sums up the unintended consequences of this approach in education (and other public services) by saying,

Most people in the public sector have a reasonable sense not only of the specific clinical, educational, policing, or other goals for which they work, but also of central ethical standards that they must meet. They know that these complex sets of goals may have to be relegated if they are required to run in a race to improve performance indicators…perverse incentives are real incentives.

I’ve lived most of these years schizophrenically.

A classic ‘heart over head’ dilemma; the heart instinctively telling me that it’s so catastrophically wrong, my head telling me that I have to fall in line so as to do good for my staff and pupils, as well as providing a salary for my family.

And I’ve actually worked as a technocrat for some of this period, spending hours debating whether a particular word or phrase in an inspection report ensures ‘consistency’ or ‘evidences the original lines of enquiry’. In a peculiar twist of fate, I appear now to be one of the more long-serving technocrats, with dozens retiring or simply leaving, unwilling to do an awful lot more for an awful lot less under an awful lot more pressure.

I am such an opponent of polarisation in public life that I may maintain this rather odd balance for the foreseeable future, but what I want to do is offer my own personal vision of a different future. It’s possible to articulate something which is a positive and optimistic alternative – a challenge, yes, but one that offers change through consensus, not aggression.

So what does this positive and optimistic alternative look like?

  1. A belief in ‘whole schools’ – where values of compassion, creativity and inclusion are at the heart of the curriculum and throb through school life. Influenced in part by Sir Ken Robinson, I am more and more sure that transferable and ‘soft’ skills are increasingly required for the post-2020 world. Knowledge is important but, without context, it is simply not enough. It appears that employers up and down the country agree.
  2. Influenced heavily by my own Jesuit education, a belief in developing the ‘whole person’, one who is taught to question, to serve society, show leadership and a strong sense of moral purpose. This is as true for the entire school community, not simply pupils. Current teacher training models do precious little of this. Teaching and learning can, and should, be both a contribution to the wider common good, and also an expression of communal joy. The same ‘whole person’ greets the globalised world as a chance to collaborate, to share, and to confront the world’s challenges together.
  3. A commitment to collaboration over competition. As Dewey and later his disciple Tao Xingzhi elucidated – ‘Life is Education’. We learn best when we extend the warm hand of friendship to communities near and far. A reciprocity of learning benefits all. This resonates with Pope Francis’ call for a ‘culture of encounter’. Future schools need to become centres for community learning, bringing parents into the heart of their work.
  4. That learning has value for its own sake, and there is intrinsic merit in treating all learning experiences with equal value. A narrowed curriculum for short-term gain is in no-one’s interests. Learning as a tool for material advancement or acquisition, in unchecked competition with others, leads to inequality and a divided and corrupt society. Alternatively, joyful learning, in the tradition of Thomas Aquinas, leads us to ‘Truth, Beauty and Goodness.’
  5. An uncompromising commitment to inclusion. Properly organised and funded, mainstream schools should be equipped to embrace the rising numbers of children with social and family related upheaval, mental illness and other special educational needs, in particular autism. They should work alongside parents, challenging and supporting them to give their child the best start in life. On a wider level, children’s understanding of difference, and their own identity, is at the root of many moral and social challenges that they face e.g. social media and artificial intelligence. Which brings us back to compassion.

Thanks to the endeavours of colleagues, support from partners within our vibrant community, and a little luck too, I’ve now come to a curriculum vision which I think matches the rhetoric above. It may not be staggeringly innovative, nor clinically ‘evidence based’ (I’m too instinctive for that).

But I think it’s right for our pupils, and for us.

There is much debate in education circles regarding the relative merits of a knowledge-rich curriculum in contrast to a skills-based curriculum. I don’t see why it has to be so polarised. We need them both. I hope we get this balance right.

We will be publishing our revised curriculum within the coming weeks and it will be available on the school website,. However, a curriculum is only as good as its implementation, so therein lies the challenge.

It’s an exciting time. I want to remain positive, not spending my time railing against the system, or criticising the many good people who find themselves collateral damage amidst the shards of the smashed-up status quo.

We can espouse an alternative by living it as a community rich in hope, and do it in the spirit of optimism and progress.

August 2018.

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