Sunday, November 29, 2009

The cult of failure in education

Writing in the Sunday Times today (Ofsted's hidden cult of failure) Harriet Sergeant describes contemporary ineffectual teaching practices and collusion in the shape of useless Ofsted inspections. The only thing that's changed since I was doing teacher-training back in 1973 is the discourse of political correctness that’s now used to justify such failures.

Back then as a student-teacher at college, one of my set books described secondary-modern teaching. An evocative picture was drawn of languorous days in the classroom. Flies buzz at the windows, the bored, indolent teacher at the front of the class chalks and talks into the air while the rejects of the 11+ do anything but learn: some read comics under the desk, others day-dream or look out of the windows, there’s a steady undercurrent of gossip and low-level rowdiness at the back of the class. This was school as dustbin or open prison - keep them off the streets.

In my time as a student teacher, secondary-modern failure was at least recognised as a problem. Bright, shiny comprehensives together with the abolition of the 11+ were going to make quality education available to everyone, even the ‘late developers’.

So began the long rise of political correctness with its denial of human nature, the dawn of the collective denial of the bell curve of children’s abilities and personality features. The ethos was one-size-fits-all education and even if this was never fully implemented, the ideology is not only still with us but is still being actively promulgated.

My teaching practices were eye-openers. First off was the inability of both myself and my fellow students to effectively control the classes in our working class comps. We wanted to teach but we were amazed to find that they didn’t want to learn: such a change from our cosseted grammar school experience.

Secondly, the teachers whose classes we sat-in on were pedagogically useless. They practised class control by diverse strategies: intimidation, mind-numbing rote-copying or the live-and-let-live mediocrity I had read about in that secondary-modern school book. All wasted time and opportunity from the child’s point of view.

I survived in teaching just a few years before escaping to the better-paid and infinitely more civilized life of a computer programmer. I believe the haemorrhage of intellectual talent from teaching has been a constant feature of ‘the profession’ for many years now. The stability of failure points to intractable causes which I put down to the refusal to engage with the intrinsic diversity in children’s aptitudes and attitudes.

It would surely be possible to create a palate of diverse approaches, but something which proved largely impossible even when it was an explicit public policy goal in the old tri-partite days is hardly possible in the current ideological climate.

But perhaps the elephant in the room is that we have too few niches in a modern economy anyway for people who are both stupid and unreliable ... if I'm allowed to say that?

Perhaps I could rephrase the point: what happens to people on the left-hand-side of the bell-curves for IQ and conscientiousness? (Answer: disproportionately unemployment, crime and/or benefits).

One last thing. In my first teaching practice after I had made a complete hash of class control and was at my wits’ end I had an interview with my supervisor, the deputy head. He sat me in his office and said gravely, “Nigel, you will never be able to intimidate classes by the force of your personality. You will succeed as a teacher only if they like you.”

At the time I thought this was both profoundly depressing and extraordinary insightful.