New Year, Old Themes.

By way of suggesting some wishes, aspirations or otherwise for 2021, I thought I’d pick out some of the themes of the hundred or so blogs on this site. The majority were written before the pandemic. Reading back through them, some of these themes are even more urgent in my mind, given the danger of returning to the same old if and when the vaccine takes hold. We cannot return to that old normal; that is how strongly I feel about it. 

So here are my 10 themes for 2021.

  1. Begin a debate about the future purpose of schools.

Speckled throughout the millions of words that have commented on the social effects of the pandemic are the occasional voices asking this question. And yet it is not being widely discussed. All the subsequent points I make below stem from this debate. What 2020 told us is that the DfE hasn’t actually got a clue what is going on in schools up and down the country, neither does it have a vision for the future. From my view as a primary headteacher, it appeared last year that society saw the role of my school as providing childcare. I think the DfE thinks my job is to prepare pupils for SATs tests. Both of these perspectives are very different from how I see it, and I suspect many other educators. A Citizens Assembly would be a good start.

2. The importance of a teacher’s love and care.

We need to value the teacher as much for his/her character as much as for their ability to prepare pupils for exams. Great teachers have the eye to spot talent, the heart to spot worry and anxiety. Great teachers dovetail with parents to assist the whole formation of the child; they are not solely transmitters of knowledge. As valuable as technology is, 2020 has shown us that a laptop is a pale imitation of a teacher, because a great teacher is overflowing with humanity

3. A continuing trend to banish the language of the market.

Let’s say goodbye to ‘competencies’, ‘targets’, ‘productivity’ and more technocratic jargon that does not belong in education. This is also the clue to reducing teachers’ workload. For example, I changed the way I do appraisals this year and it’s far better for losing the constraining paperwork that characterised the previous iteration. We have to admit that that the language of choice and consumerism has not worked. I’m afraid a rising tide does not lift all boats, but instead pulls many away from their moorings.

4. A corrective to Brexit.

Please can we have a greater focus on languages in schools, on links with other countries, on educating our pupils to believe that they are not ‘better than everyone’ (as our Education Secretary believes) but that we are better together. Learning together, we can educate our pupils to collectively take on the challenges of conflict, technology and climate change which will define their lives. Whatever replaces Erasmus must have this at its heart.

5. An end to the language of ‘the disadvantaged’

Time to say goodbye to the simplistic policies of pupil premiums and free school meal vouchers. They are sticking plasters which seduce us into thinking that we are helping the poor. This might come across as harsh, but we have two much bigger issues that are causing disadvantage – parenting and health. If we want schools to really make a difference, then they have to be given the tools to support families with these two issues. This is what Children’s Centres were made for. An honest debate on this is required.

6. A change to the harsh, mean language associated with winners and losers.

This is the theme of the best book I read in 2020, Michael Sandel’s ‘The Tyranny of Merit’. We really do need to acknowledge that good enough is…. well, good enough. Those who have good jobs, spare money, a level of success, argue that ‘it’s because I deserve it’, and look down on those who haven’t, carping ‘it’s your own fault’ as they kick away the ladder. If there is a mental health crisis, it is possibly because of dangerous presumptions that we are shovelling into our children day in day out. ‘If you don’t get your GCSEs, you’re a failure’, ‘Your GCSE is your passport to your future’ etc etc. We need to redefine success and value.

7. A plea for more eccentrics, more recusants, more awkward people.

Moving away from the mechanical standardisation of the system (particularly at secondary level), let’s celebrate difference and personality. Let’s reduce our dependence on rules and legalism. This is what the late Sir Ken Robinson meant by diversity, and society will be so much more healthy as a result. Some of the most amazing pupils I teach have severe learning difficulties. They are enriching to the school, and to society. They cannot be strait-jacketed through a standardised system, taught by carbon-copy teachers who have an identical set of ‘competencies’.

8. Volunteerism to be the star of 2021

If the vaccine is to be rolled out effectively, tens of thousands of people will experience the joy of working for the common good. The thing is, it’s been a staple of educational policy for years, chiefly through school governance. And it’s becoming harder and harder to get governors to commit. We need volunteerism in education to be a huge national effort. What a great chance to introduce something really innovative. For example, everyone in the private sector does an annual two-week stint supporting a school, helping pupils with their reading etc etc. There could be some sort of compensation to the employer for the release, and it would assist the private sector understand just what is happening in schools. The pandemic has shown that, as things stand, they do not. Especially journalists.

9. As a primary head, I’ve argued for years that the SATs need to go.

Or at least to end the publication of results. I won’t go over the reasons again (I’ve written a couple of previous blogs in this) but suffice to say, my mind is unchanged. The whole system of accountability needs to be looked at, as it is currently highly dispiriting for schools in areas of multiple deprivation.

10. And finally, a call to arms.

What 2020 has shown is that schools really do have soul. They are places of love, compassion and full commitment. When the chips were down, they stood up and were counted. I can only speak for primary schools, but this year we have replaced the language of ‘me’ with a lexicon of ‘us’. We have seen communities of equals grow and thrive, relationships between parents and staff improve beyond measure. It’s been brilliant, if at times sad and worrying (and still is, immensely). This momentum must continue so that schools revert to being communities of heart and soul, and not simply factory floors, injecting knowledge as if it were some kind of vaccine.

There you go, I’ve finished on the word ‘vaccine’. How appropriate.

Happy New Year.

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