Photo by Matthew Horwood
Artillery Row Books

A quiet revolution

Enough of reformers who want to turn schools upside-down without knowing which way is up

Must Do Better by Harry Hudson and Roy Blatchford

About Our Schools: Improving on Previous Best by Mick Waters and Tim Brighouse

The pandemic has been good for teaching. During the first lockdown, applications for teacher training rose by 12 per cent — a dramatic upturn in numbers. The teaching charity Now Teach, set up by former Financial Times journalist Lucy Kellaway, saw a 70 per cent increase. For Kellaway this surge in popularity was a result of many people re-evaluating their lives, and realising that their jobs were “empty” (to use a cliché often heard around worthy but underpaid jobs). These new converts to the profession suddenly realised that they “wanted to put something back”. The fact that their own jobs had either disappeared or looked vulnerable was presumably only an afterthought in their new-found altruism.

Teaching is not an obscure career somehow overlooked by millions

It’s an odd sort of epiphany. Teaching is not an obscure career somehow overlooked by millions. Indeed, it’s difficult to think of any other job that everyone, irrespective of background or location, has experienced at some point in their lives. It has unrivalled “brand awareness” in the labour market: we’ve all been to school, and we have all known some teachers, something which (if you’re lucky) you can’t always say for doctors and lawyers. So why isn’t it more popular among graduates?

Perhaps this familiarity is part of the image problem that dogs teaching. As Harry Hudson and Roy Blatchford point out in Must Do Better, their new, and rather thin “manifesto” for improving the popularity of teaching, if you had a terrible experience at school, you probably wouldn’t want to return to work there. Or, rather, you would only do so if there were no other options available.

Teaching is, for many, the second or third career choice: something that you go to when your own job ends, or when you want job security, a nice state pension and long holidays. This perception of the profession as a stage in one’s working life, rather than the destination itself, is betrayed in even the names of the leading recruitment charities: Teach First and Kellaway’s Now Teach suggest that you’re either coming to teaching after doing something before (which was probably better paid) or you are on your way to something later (which will probably be better paid). 

Must Do Better, Harry Hudson and Roy Blatchford (Waterstones, £15.00)

Blatchford’s and Hudson’s book has been described by some as a “call-to-arms”, “crucial” and a “clarion call”. It is, of course, nothing of the sort and nor does it state anything radical. Nevertheless, it has gained an unusual amount of coverage recycling familiar “challenges” and offering some bizarre “solutions” which, the authors believe, will make the job more appealing to all those people who, again, somehow missed it the first time around. These include, rather unrealistically, building a brand for teaching as recognisable as Coke or Apple, making more television programmes like “Educating Essex”, and getting the government to somehow “subliminally” counter all the bad news that surrounds schools. They never say how any of this could be funded.

Part of the problem is that even those who believe themselves to be strong supporters of teachers have no real idea of how to promote the profession to others. The fact that they went to school themselves, and have read a few books by Carol Dweck or Ken Robinson, mistakenly convinces them they are experts.

Take Times journalist Alice Thomson, who on the one hand argues that teaching is a profoundly important job which is central to the future prosperity of the country, but on the other hand describes much of what we do every day as teaching an “inflexible outdated curriculum” which produces “identikit robots”. Who does that insult more — the pupils or the teachers? Who would want to be involved in such a de-humanising process? Yet it is a familiar portrayal made by those, like Richard Branson, who believe conventional schools are Gradgrindian charnel houses for creativity. Branson is now funding a charity which seeks to “re-imagine education” for the 21st century. Fortunately his daughter Holly, the charity’s founder, had such a creative and fulfilling education at an independent school in Oxford and Necker Island, that she is perfectly qualified to tell underprivileged children in state schools why they should be taking greater risks and thinking more creatively.

Only those with a safety net tend to believe in the necessity of risk taking

Teaching suffers from attracting grifters, hawkers, con artists and bullshit merchants, along with self-styled visionaries and disruptors, and of course the well-meaning idiots who, Ann Elk-like, have their own untested theories about how schools can be (shudder) re-imagined. Many insist that change is overdue, that teaching needs to be reinvented, and that they alone know how to fix things. They often boast about breaking the rules, when they almost invariably benefitted from a privileged, highly-structured education themselves. Only those with a safety net tend to believe in the necessity of risk taking.

About Our Schools: Improving on Previous Best, Mick Waters and Tim Brighouse (Crown House Publishing, £24.99)

A weightier analysis of the profession comes in Tim Brighouse’s and Mick Walter’s About Our Schools. At over 600 pages (five pages filled with long endorsements, a twenty three page biography, fifteen pages of acronyms, and four pages of names of people the authors have talked to), this is a bloated beast of a book, which the authors helpfully advise should not be read in one sitting.

Brighouse and Walters do their best to provide an objective and academic overview of educational change from Jim Callaghan’s famous Ruskin College speech in 1976 to now, but they perhaps reveal where their own political allegiances lie in choosing socialist academic Danny Dorling to write the book’s introduction. Dorling, who believes the UK to be “the most unequal of affluent nations”, can’t resist repeating the familiar claims made by people like Thomson and Branson, that we no longer “even try to teach” modern languages or the arts, that teaching is so terrible that our young people simply cannot answer any question in maths or science that is not directly connected with an exam. “Education in England,” Professor Dorling states, “is in a terrible mess.”

Perhaps it is in a terrible mess because it has become a contested ground for everybody who wants to re-shape young people, and the world they will go on to inhabit, according to their own set of priorities. Education has become a territory that should attract the selfless, but is now increasingly populated by activists like Dorling who see the primacy of the subject as a detour from their own political priorities. Brighouse and Walters are serious and experienced educationalists, but their “manifesto” is a list of platitudes and predictable statements about the importance of teaching about “prejudice and flawed thinking”. There is little about deep subject knowledge or the joy of learning. It is as inspirational as a To-Do list written by a municipal sub-committee.

Schools, and teaching, change very slowly. This is an inherent good, and should tell us something about the profession itself. It is innately conservative, not one naturally dedicated to activism and social upheaval. It should be, primarily, about teaching children the beauty of one’s subject, not how that subject can bring about inclusion and diversity. In this age of distraction, it should unapologetically demand the importance of concentration and gaining knowledge. Education does need a revolution, but a quiet one, which seeks to reclaim our schools as places of study, not clearing houses for other peoples’ insatiable demands. Whether it would make the profession more popular is incidental, but at least it would have at its core a commitment to knowledge that unambiguously defines its role.

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