Cream teas and the curriculum

I have often thought that analysing the language of schooling would be a dismal activity. Thinking of the language of reports, for example, what words would appear most frequently? Despite technological changes in modes of reporting, I suspect that over the years similar terms will occur: “work”, “effort”, “result”, and so on. At the present time, most political and media discussion of education deals in similar terms, with emphasis on students‘ success rates in examinations, skills acquisition, discipline and effort – and their teachers’ responsibility for ensuring constantly improved standards in all these. It is as if school is nothing but an endless process of work and effort to prepare oneself for an adult life of … work and effort. In fact, within the discourse of school, work and effort become goods in themselves, so a positive report may say nothing more than that a student “works hard” and “makes an effort”. My son was once told in a school report that he “made no more than the necessary effort”, implying that this was a negative characteristic. When I mentioned this to him, he replied, with impeccable reason, that there never was any need to make more than the necessary effort. (Why should I, writing this, tap any harder than necessary on the computer keys? A lighter touch might be more efficient.)

A sad aspect of British schooling is how few opportunities for pleasure it offers many students, and possibly also their teachers. When comprehensive education became widespread in the 70s and 80s, it was assumed by many that the homogenising social ethos of the grammar or independent school had no place in a school of diverse students of varying aptitudes and social backgrounds. It is not clear, however, that the new schools always imported enough social glue of their own kind to create a functioning community. The nineteenth-century designers of the US high school made no such mistake. It was an all-ability, neighbourhood school, but it was also socially attractive, so that even an indifferent student would gain pleasure from the many sports and social activities that have become a traditional part of American life. Indeed, the ‘prom’, graduation ceremonies and parties, school year books and similar institutions are increasingly found in UK schools.

The British school, however, still lacks sufficient institutionalised sources of social pleasure. Many “academic” problems would be solved or ameliorated if students simply wanted to be in the place, rather than wanted to disrupt it. Some teachers understand this and improve the school experience for all concerned by foregrounding student activities. These may involve expensive foreign trips, which are less inclusive than they should be, or they may involve something as simple yet demanding as putting on a record-breaking (in terms of size) cream tea event for the local communityThis video, from Tiverton High School in Devon, has a wonderfully symbolic stop motion sequence where an examination hall is transformed into a tea room for hundreds of people and then returned to its academic shape. The video was made by the students themselves, led by a former student of the school who has made a name for himself as a producer of news bulletins that follow standard generic forms in an entertainingly local manner. If we can forget (for a moment) the language of ‘work’ and ‘effort’ with its implication that these things are good in themselves, we could consider what the students involved learned from putting on this highly organised social event.

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Time to call Gove to account

I’m writing early in the morning, after an exceptionally disturbing dream.  In my dream, I was driving in bad light through countryside and came to a section of road where I knew I had to stop because ahead was something unknown and indistinct.  The road ahead was exceptionally dark, and, as I edged forward, I found myself approaching a scene of massacre.  Farm animals – horses, sheep and cows, their skins all a dense, shiny black – were lying in tortured positions,  scattered over the road and on the fields on either side.

I’m sure there may be many reasons for my disturbance, but one of them is the BBC news bulletin that I watched shortly before going to bed last night. In a short item, towards the end of the news, the reporter explained to the newscaster (on behalf of the audience) the government proposal to return GCSE examinations to something resembling the O-level of 50 years ago.  Assessment, we were told, would be entirely by end of course examination, and there would be a new grading system.  The current A-E scale will be replaced by a numerical scale, 8-1, where 8 represented the highest achievement.

I have recently published a paper analysing in detail the professional views of the 730 English teachers who responded to an online survey on the government’s current changes to teacher training.   Trying to find a title for the paper, I came up with “Surveying the Wreckage”. These changes to teacher-training, which shift the burden of responsibility from university Departments of Education to the schools, in which trainees will normally be employed as unqualified teachers, are regarded by the vast majority of respondents to the survey as disastrous.  Now we have to contemplate 50 years’ work improving assessments, making them more fit for purpose, making them more sensitive to the range of real life work that pupils will undertake, being similarly wrecked effectively by the fiat of one man, Michael Gove.

The intellectual paucity of these proposals is signified by the absurd belief that changing the assessment system from an alphabetical to a numerical progression will somehow improve matters.  What matters is the kind of work that students are asked to do, and the way it is assessed.  Certainly, moving from an alphabetical system where A (a letter universally recognised as signifying high achievement)  is replaced by the number 8, has less than nothing to recommend it.  One understands that room has been left for the addition of further numbers in the future, to allow for a further refinement of the grading system.  A kind of institutionalised grade inflation, in fact.

David Cameron must call in his Secretary of State for Education and prevent him from single-handedly destroying cultures of teaching and assessment that have been constructed over many years by professionals concerned to improve the education of young people.  Rab Butler tells in his autobiography The Art of the Possible of the day in 1942 when Winston Churchill, Prime Minister during the Second World War, asked him whether there was anything that could be done to make schoolchildren more patriotic. Butler told him that the curriculum was the responsibility of the schools and that ministers should not interfere.  Churchill rejoined: “Oh, quite.  But can’t we at least tell them that Wolfe won Québec?”

An element of Conservative reticence, building on rather than destroying the best that has been thought and said, would be welcome at present.