Wednesday, 30 November 2016

Invisible Academies (Chapter 2)

The Three Academies Of The White City

The Secretary was surprised to find herself impatient for his return. He'd been gone a month, too short a time to expect him to have even left the imperial enclave known as The White City. Written correspondence was out of the question. They both knew this, as much because of the ponderous pace of Imperial bureaucratic time as to avoid the mediation involved in communicating impersonally, the filtering effect of censors both internal and external, real and imagined. Thus it was that she had filled the gap of anticipation with dreams of his first journey in her land and imagined herself for the first time as a stranger. When a Department mandarin drew her attention to the appointment he had made to see her, she accepted the news with the equanimity that befits her rank.

Courtesies having been observed, only the sound of tea being served filled the room as they settled on cushions either side of a low table. Though the ritual sounds spoke superficially of accord, not quite unseen, the Brownian motion of the steam rising from their cups better captured the underlying conflicts each was battling with.

"I am told you have visited the Emperor's three Academies."

"Indeed, I have, though not without some challenge as you forewarned."

"Were you hampered in your access?"

"Not at all. At least, not deliberately. Movement through The White City is reminiscent of some famous paradoxes that were once part of our school curriculum."

"How is the inclusion or exclusion of curriculum material decided upon in your homeland?"

"I can't profess to know. I could only tell you who makes those decisions."

The Secretary could not comprehend the ramifications of not having an Emperor to provide stability over aeons, with a purpose and a trajectory as true as time's arrow itself. Blind to this, she impugned upon Marco's homeland a wisdom its own citizens would have scoffed at. Seeing in her face a hint of acquiescent patronisation, he said only: "The question would yield a different answer at surprisingly regular intervals." At that, her eyes narrowed. He sipped his tea with an innocence that was either wholly beatific, or a disingenuity that was no less admirable.

"Tell me of the Three Academies. One is my alma mater. I am interested to see if you can work out which." Her self-indulgence surprised him, and he began his report uncertainly, defensively, hastily trying to reframe the narrative he'd prepared into a portrait of her. It shifted incessantly, resolving and dissolving like a surrealist montage.

"My journey took me first to the Archē Academy, where the East Gate imposes itself on the minds of denizens, then to the Aūrion Academy, where the West Gate frames the entirety of the landcape, and finally to the Ārtios Academy, where the Gateway Bridge is erected as a permanent reminder of the transience of all things. I have prepared a report on each, but I would be hard pushed to say which you attended without more time to reflect."

She laughed, and he could tell it was as much at herself as at him. He relaxed at that and she seized the opportunity to move on.

"I am only playing, Mr Collier. Your visit is a welcome diversion and I am keen to hear your thoughts. Would you care to read your reports to me? It would bring me great pleasure."

"I would be delighted to," he said. Often, since his children had grown up, he missed reading aloud to them. He took every opportunity to do it in his classes. Equally, he kept those opportunities to a minimum because, like her, he enjoyed being read to. He wondered whether she had ever known the teacher's priviledged joy of hearing a reading voice develop over weeks, months and years.

Sunday, 30 October 2016

Death Of A Teacher

Co-written with @whatonomy in Lima, October 2016.

Rich Hymen, merino sweater sleeves drawn just shy of his elbows, is contemplating his forearm hair. This is not, or shouldn't be, his natural environment; he isn't a comfortable sage on the stage, but as he imagines the faces of his expectant charges, the sense of responsibility taking hold visibly stimulates each follicle, and his grip on the lectern tightens.


Students are filing into the auditorium. As they do so, he runs a thumb and forefinger down his lanyard. Cotton? No. Vinyl? Maybe. Nylon? Yes. Nylon and the bas relief of a transfer. Nylon and rubber. YES!

Dick! Stand to attention, Dick! For Pete's sake!
"Hello everyone. The theme of today's lecture is the learning cycle - empowering students for the 21st Century through helical planning."

At 'helical' the students' notebooks flutter and crackle: a graphologist would have heard the word 'helical' scratched rapidly in graphite.

Dick! (Please. 'Rich', Dad!) Bullshit. Dick.

"Picture this: the Victorian Age. An age of agrarian industry. A time of great disparity and yet... of great expectations."


"The harvest is done; the children, exhausted by their industrial travails, trudge back to the charity school to learn words, numbers and the writing thereof." Graphite twitches throughout the auditorium. And the graphologist hears "thereof".

Dick! Do your flies up. You're exposed.

The lecture follows Rich Hymen's well-trodden path from A to B, the Roman road from a dark past to an unknown future: a future in which 65.7% of jobs will not be intelligible to either the people that do them, nor (most pertinently) to their parents, who are likely to be sitting now in the auditorium.


Whenever he talks about the future, everyone in the auditorium (including Rich) looks at the glowing green exit sign in the rear, right-hand corner of the room.

The lecture ends. Each forearm hair in turn stands down, like a batallion dismissed. Students file out like a squadron sent to the front line. All but one.

"Mr Hymen, Sir."

"Yes. Hello. How can I help you? And remind me your name."

"Arthur Busch, Sir. Arty. I'm struggling with behaviour in my B placement. I wondered if you could help me."

"Of course, Mr Busch. I assume you've already been through the Future-Proof Checklist I've given you. Tell me. What have you tried?"

Arty winces. The capital letters on Future-Proof Checklist are audible in his mentor's speech. He fingers the corner of his reporter's notebook. He flicks it open to the checklist, reworked in his own handwriting and annotated in three colours.

"I've tried 'know-understand-apply' learning objectives, no objectives, showing the objectives at the start, revealing them at the end, and asking the students to deduce them from the lesson."

"None of those worked?"

"No. I don't think the problem was my objectives."

Rich scratches his chin: he's thinking.

"And also.." Arty is breathless, "Also, triple marking has... kind of become, well, just another routine: something I do, the kids do - you know?" Arty's brow rises, expectant.

Rich works a knot in the lectern as he frames his response. As he does so, he imagines the lectern buckling.

"Have you tried flipping your classroom? It's maybe a bit advanced for you at this stage."

"I've tried that, Sir, but there were problems of... accessibility. Of varying kinds."

"Ah, yes. How can we prepare kids for the future when society doesn't even allow them to live in the present? Tell me that. What about giving them access in class? Have you tried iPads?"

Arty's parents - could they have observed him at this moment - would have seen an increment of aging that no parent should have to see.

"I did. I now have a few fewer. My feedback stamp quickly became an improvised graffiti tool, my lollipop sticks spawned a number of hilarious games, and the brain gym quickly descended into a bout of Ultimate Fighting."

Rich nods - thoughtfully (to a casual observer). He nods again. He pauses. He nods again.

Dick! You numbskull.

"I think," he says without thinking, "I have the solution."

"But Mr Hymen, you haven't really asked me what the problem is."

"Ah yes, of course. I forget myself."

A  pregnant silence follows, during which Richard Hymen hesitates to ask, and Arthur Busch hesitates to tell. The urgency of Arty's situation wins over, and he speaks first.

"I think the problem is the checklist, Sir."

Oh Dick! Dick, Dick, Dick! You've finally been caught with your pants down.

"You think my checklist is incomplete?"

Arty's parents - could they have observed him now - would have been so proud.

"Not incomplete. More, dare I say..."

Dick! He hasn't swallowed your creation. He's going to spit it back in your face.

"No." Rich touches a finger to Arty's lips - much to the disapproval of Arty's parents, could they have observed him.

"Arty, we are writing the rule book of the Third Millennium, here. The past is a foreign country. The future is our home now."

"Mr Hymen, do you realise how vacuous that sounds?"

Richard Hymen's hairs all stand back up to attention, ready to go over the top, lest one be shot as an example.

Ha! Ha! Ha! Dick! Vacuous. Did you hear that?

Rich's features set. "Arturo."


"Yes, Arthur. Look, it's really not as complex as you might think."

"Well, I am coming around to that way of thinking." Arty smiles and then, just as quickly, unsmiles.

"Watch." says Rich, "And learn."

From his salesman's bag, an ironic legacy from his father, Richard pulls a black box. He holds it up with precious care between them, then pulls a strap from it, methodically, behind his head and over his ears.

"You can't hold back the future, Arty. Look. Just look."

The device descends slowly over Richard Hymen's now incongruously youthful face, and finally obscures his eyes.

"Can you see?" he says, "Can you see what I see?"

Hymen - unbroken, unbowed - doesn't hear Arty's footsteps to the door. He doesn't see the calm determination now on the young man's face.

He neither hears nor sees the door that shuts on two careers.


Wednesday, 28 September 2016

Invisible Academies (Chapter 1)

Invisible Academies


In that greatest of Empires, a new Secretary of State for Education had been appointed. Her knowledge of the glorious purpose of Education could be in little doubt. Her commitment to the infallible logic of the Curriculum was as certain as the rotation of the stars above the imperial palace; her sensitivity to the deep poignancy of Schooling for everyone from the Emperor himself to the lowliest of his subjects an inevitable outcome of her own learning. Yet the trajectory of a mandarin's progress to such high office can only be achieved at a cost - the wider one's field of view, the harder it is to perceive the details. What a lever gains in power, it must lose in subtlety. This lesson, the new Secretary of State had never forgotten. Now, surveying her conspectus, she yearned for the unattainable: the five-year plan of an Academy in such and such a city, the performance management documents for a teacher of maths in such and such an Academy, the workbook of a student in the third row in such and such a class. 

Chapter 1 - A Commission

It was almost by chance that they met. Almost, because chance had no part to play in the Emperor's dominions. Banished from this most rational realm, it remained only by clinging to the weaker instincts of all but the most disciplined subjects. It hung around in their uselessly consuming dreams. It clung to their unproductive subconscious thoughts. It preyed on new and complex situtations, always ready to pounce from the shadows to supplant superstition for faith. The Secretary for Education herself was, on this occasion, nearly seduced by its simple narrative. Her training and lifelong devotion to the Empire allowed her to overcome herself and recognise the intentionality of their meeting. We can all find solace in her temporary weakness, and may all find inspiration in her self-mastery.

A visitor from a land beyond even the Emperor's towering aspirations, here he sat at her table, engrossed as well he might be by the lavish entertainment put on for his delegation. Yet he may never have been there. A classroom teacher, he had been picked by lot to accompany the deputation. His mission, it transpired throughout the evening, was to learn all he could of the Empire's education system. From curriculum to pedagogy, from structure to agency, he was tasked with reporting how the Empire prepared its children for the future so unassailably well. He was woefully unqualified for the task, but his Head of State hoped less to transform the lot of their students than to boost the morale of their teachers.

Luck, hope, naked deviousness and outright envy. She balked at every detail of his account and pitied the people of his barbaric homeland, but never betrayed her diplomatic smile. She found him charming, in a child-like way. Though she did not tell him so, she too may not have been there that night. Her presence was, strictly speaking, unnecessary. Only her recent promotion had made her feel compelled to attend. As the uncomfortable notion of chance retreated from her mind, she marvelled at the Emperor's omnipotence that had brought them together, and vowed to make the most of the opportunity.

"You will have access to all of the Empire's Academies."

"Thank you, Your Excellency, but I will need to see no more than a few. The Curriculum being equal in all, my interest will be in seeing it applied in different contexts - urban and rural, coastal and peripheral, rich and deprived."

She let pass the notion of deprivation. She was certain he spoke guilelessly and meant no insult.

"The Curriculum is indeed equal in all Academies, but equality and uniformity are not the same. Each Academy has its own, notwithstanding an element of franchising."

"Each has its own Curriculum? How can this be? How can equality be assured? And who can be licensing a curriculum, if not the Emperor or his Ministers?"

The nature of his task was only beginning to dawn on him. She held back an admixture of feelings that amounted to nothing more than condescension, and which she resented in herself.

"You may be thinking in terms of equality of outcome. The Emperor in his wisdom offers all equality of opportunity." She paused, noting the puzzlement of his expression. "It is therefore fitting that his most successful subjects should be free to develop and deliver curricula that honour him and his infallible principles. The noble task of the Ministry is to ensure that standards are upheld. You will also have access to all Ministers, Commissioners and Inspectors as you desire."

Questions rose in his mind like a tide, but he knew better than to open the floodgates. He would have much to observe and much to learn. For now, he thanked her profusely for her hospitality.

"There is something you can do for me."

"Yes, Your Excellency?"

"I would like you to report back to me with your observations."

The cold breath of censorship caressed the back of his neck. She sensed it in his eyes.

"Don't worry," she laughed. "My intention is quite the opposite of what you fear."

He relaxed visibly.

"It will be my pleasure to share my observations with you, Your Excellency."

"I am glad. A fresh perspective can be... Gratifying."

He noted the hesitation. Conversation with her was like chess. He was enjoying it deeply, and was glad there would be more occasions to do it. For now, as they took their leave of each other, neither of them could be in any doubt that he had exposed a weakness in her game, though she never betrayed her diplomatic smile.

Monday, 1 August 2016

Two Rejected Education Film Ideas

How To Get A Head In Education 

John Dumbledore Dewey is a highly successful academy headteacher who can't come up with a motto for his trust's new academy that will get his community to buy in and stop complaining. His obsessive worrying affects not only his relationship with his wife, his friends and CEO, but also his own body - graphically demonstrated when he grows a large stress-related boil on his shoulder. When the boil grows eyes and a mouth and starts talking, Dewey really begins to think he's lost his mind. But has he?

The boil takes a cynical and unscrupulous view of the teaching profession in contrast to Dewey's new-found ethical concerns. Eventually, he decides to have the boil removed in hospital but moments before he is taken into the operating room, the boil grows into a replica of Dewey's head, covers his original head, and asks doctors to lance it, which is done since nobody has noticed the switch from left to right. Dewey, now with a new head, moustache and personality returns home to celebrate his wedding anniversary. He resumes his teaching career rejuvenated and ruthless, although without his wife, who decides to leave his new cruel persona.

Teacher stress: Don't let it get inside your head.

Being Tom Bennett

Supply drama teacher Craig Schwartz and animal lover and pet store clerk Lotte Schwartz are just going through the motions of their marriage. Despite not being able to earn a living solely through supply teaching, Craig loves his profession as it allows him to develop the talents of others. Though achieving some mastery, he is forced to take a job as a file clerk for the off-kilter Department For Education, in an office located on the five-foot tall 7½ floor of Sanctuary Buildings. 

Behind one of the filing cabinets, Craig finds a hidden door which he learns is a portal into the mind of education star and behaviour guru Tom Bennett. The visit through the portal lasts fifteen minutes after which the person is spat into a ditch next to the new Sussex Turnpike. Maxine Lund, one of Craig's co-workers whom he tells about the portal because he is attracted to her, sees a money-making opportunity selling trips into Bennett's mind after office hours for £200 a visit. Craig, Lotte and Maxine begin to understand that anyone entering the portal has the ability to control Bennett's mind. Their relationships play out through Bennett, until he discovers the portal and enters it himself, in a bid to restore order to his and their lives.

Tsargate: A portal into the rational mind of Tom Bennett

Wednesday, 13 July 2016

On Exactitude In Education

After Jorge-Luis Borges, my greatest teacher.

... In that Empire, the Art of Teaching attained such Perfection that the assessment of a single child occupied the entirety of a School, and the assessment of a School, the entirety of the Empire. In time, those Unconscionable Frameworks no longer satisfied, and the Teachers Guild struck an Imperial Curriculum whose size was that of the Empire, and which coincided point for point with it. The following Generations, who were not so fond of the Study of Teaching as their Forebears had been, saw that that vast Curriculum was Useless, and not without some Pitilessness was it, that they delivered it up to the Inclemencies of Politics and Markets. In the Classrooms of the West, still today, there are tattered ruins of that Curriculum, harboured by Idealists and Charlatans; in all the Land there is no other relic of the Discipline of Teaching.

—Suarez Miranda,Viajes de varones prudentes, Libro IV,Cap. XLV, Lerida, 1658

Tuesday, 21 June 2016

The Matchstick Men

Nick Cave and the Bad Seeds - Red Right Hand
He went into a rich bookseller's shop,
Quoth he! we are both of one college,
For I myself sate like a cormorant once
Fast by the tree of knowledge.
Samuel Taylor Coleridge - The Devil's Thoughts

L.S. Lowry* - 'Where the viaduct looms like a bird of doom.'

I took a little walk to the edge of town recently. I went across the tracks, inadvisably following in the wake of some unknown force. A ghost, a god, a man, a guru? I haven't been able to ascertain its nature, but I know that its influence is insidious and relentless, and that it's coming for you next. I didn't have to travel far, it should be noted - a couple of clicks and I found myself in a place of closed roads and broken pavements. I could hear you still, far above, travelling the high road. I could just about make out the sound of your traffic over that of the shifting, cracking viaduct of our daily commute.

As I set out to recount this short, fearful journey, I am torn between giving a truthful account or fictionalising the events I witnessed. I have decided to leave the matter open to your interpretation, and simply to preamble my tale with this warning: Any ficitionalisation you perceive is designed to protect you from a grimmer truth.

The first things I noticed there were humming wires channeling secret threats from living room to living room, and twitching net curtains in the windows. Groups of men stood around fires on street corners. They seemed to share their knowledge through codes I could not read. The words they spoke to me were polite, and their directions always truthful as I followed the spectre past the square, past the bridge, past the mills, past the stacks - but their eyes spoke of mistrust, and the whispers behind my back all sounded like a name (His? Or this disappearing land's?).

Next I came to a forum where actors played upon a stage - comedy or tragedy, I could not tell, but it was clearly scripted. It involved lies and counter-lies, frightful premonitions and light-hearted shrugging, insinuations, innuendo and intolerance. The audience played their part. They were to make an important decision at the end, to choose their own adventure. Both options too, it seemed to me, were already scripted, and neither would offer a satisfactory resolution. I suspect they knew this, but the absence of self-respect is fertile ground for self-loathing and self-deception. The worst of the rhetoric wasn't on the stage but on the far edges of the gathered audience - unheard, unheeded heckling. New groups arrived and others left. I followed some away from this hateful scene, through the ghettos and the barrio and the bowery and the slum, in search of the mysterious shadow.

As I trailed them, I watched arguments and fights break out between some of these groups. It seemed odd to me that they should argue at all, let alone fight. It was clear they had already chosen their favoured outcome and were not to be convinced otherwise. I realised then that they too were scripted, as were their fights, rehearsed in nightmares, in dreams, in heads and on TV screens. Armed only with arguments half-heard from the stage play, which they aped with immaterial inaccuracies, embellishments, and changes of tone, they were as unlikely to be convincing as they were to be convinced. I saw no agency, only microscopic cogs in a catastrophic plan, and I pushed on to find the director and designer of this spectacle.

Finally, I came to the dreadful scene that made me turn back. A body lay in the road around which a crowd had formed. I saw some men hurl abuse at it. I saw others repeat the nonchalant shrug of one of the play's characters. I saw men accused of murder who could not have committed it, and one excused of it before the blood had dried on his hands. I saw men shirk all responsibility, and one man take it all, unafraid. I saw competing groups engage in a tug-of-war with the body until some of the stage actors arrived and reclaimed it as their own, a bit player who would now serve well as a prop. There were mourners too, but true grief is too quiet to make a wire hum.

In my mind, there could be no mistake then that the phantom I'd pursued was the Devil himself, whose darling sin is pride that apes humility. I tried to speak out, but every sound from my mouth drew only ire from all sides. I left, in fear for my safety. Such is that fear that I nearly remained silent altogether, but I have chosen to tell you this tale, teacher, because you and I are the light that went out, down there. Be he ghost, god, man or guru, our absence is what he preys upon, replacing hope with fear. If we allow the wholesale substitution of mimicry for acting and of action for narrative, of soliloquy for dialogue and of fame for talent, of homogeneity for diversity and of popularity for purpose in our classrooms, the parts we don't reach can only grow. They will grow in the shadows of the viaduct we built, until they bring it down.

I came back to tell you this, and found him busy at work on us too. There, upon the viaduct, a stage is erected, and actors come and go upon it proffering false choices. A small crowd has already gathered, cheering and jeering on cue. Will you join them, or will you come back with me, down there below the viaduct, just a couple of clicks away, to start helping those who are lost find their way back?

This Way Up: But faith! he'll turn a corner jinkin, / An' cheat you yet!** 


* L.S. Lowry sketching Stockport Viaduct, from Wellington steps. Copyright: Crispin Eurich. Contact The First Gallery, 1 Burnham Chase, Bitterne, Southampton SO18 5DG Tel. (02380) 462723 email:
** Address to the Devil, Robert Burns,, accessed 21/06/16. 

Wednesday, 8 June 2016

Numbers In The Dark

With thanks to Italo Calvino

Paolino ran his fingers along the keyboards, trailing his hand behind him as he walked down the bank of computers, then turned to watch each screen light up a soft digital blue. Locked screens shone like barred windows. It was otherwise dark in this room of the office block. His mother was running a vacuum cleaner next door, and he had nearly finished emptying the dustbins, pocketing all the discarded pens and pencils that, for one reason or another, didn't reflect the professional ethos of the company's workers.

As each monitor in turn realised his cruel trick, or grew bored of waiting for an input, and switched back to its dormant black, and the light dimmed in the room, Paolino sat in a chair at the head of the row. Surveying his loot and estimating its playground value, he recalled meeting one of the workers.

"One day, they won't even need us to sit in front of them. They'll do all the work themselves."

"The computers?"

"It's only a matter of time. The algorithms already do all the hard work."


"Don't ask me, kid. I just type in the data we get from the examiners."

"So the computers will type themselves?"

"They won't need to. They'll mark all the papers in the first place. Hell, I'll be damned if they don't teach the children too."

Recently arrived from Italy, whence his father hadn't followed, Paolino was adapting to British culture faster than his mother. He could hear her, next door, singing 'La donna è mobile...'. The humming of the Henry, low, then high, as it moved back and forth across the polyester carpet, provided the rhythm. He was tempted to block the sound out with his Spotify playlist, but another sound interrupted him.

Despite all admonishments from Signora Pensotti, Paolino had remained a stubbornly curious boy. The boredom of his nightly shift shadowing her at work had done nothing to temper this. Having now distinguished the intermittent pacing and furious typing from the steady stream of other sounds filling the nocturnal office block, Paolino would not be deterred from further investigation. The animated cacophony emanated from a small office further down the corridor, and as he moved closer, the muffled stomping and clatttering were complemented by an agitated murmur. The door had no windows, so he waited for a lull and knocked.

"Come in."

Tentatively, Paolino opened the door.

"I'm emptying the dustbins, Sir."

"Please yourself, lad."

The man was older, balding, with a lined, friendly face whose eyes spoke incongruously of deep concern. He sat down and watched as the boy emptied the bin into a large black sack, all the while casting furtive glances around the room.

"You're a nosy one, aren't you?"

"Sorry, Sir."

"It's nothing to apologise for, though it'll get you nowhere. I've been nosy all my life and look where it's got me."

"This is a big company you work for, isn't it, Sir? You're very lucky."

"Ha! A big company, yes."

Paolino could scarce understand it, but he detected a dissonance between the man's laugh and the look in his eyes. The old man, in turn, could see the boy had rumbled him but lacked the language to ask the question that would satiate his curiosity.

"What's your name?"

"Paolino, Sir. Paolino Pensotti. From Italy."

"Well, Paolino Pensotti from Italy, my name is Eddy. Eddy Lorenz from America. It's a pleasure to meet you. I suppose you want to know why I'm so... infuriato."

"Is it because the computers are going to take your job, Mr Lorenz?"

"You are an astute boy, Paolino, but no. It is because they're all wrong."

"The computers are wrong?"

"Right down to their little Pentium cores."

"They make mistakes?"

"Oh, no, Paolino. They perform perfectly, but they were wrong from the start. Look."

Eddy tapped at his keyboard and turned the screen around to face Paolino. He could see a chart. Its red line, with enough small peaks and troughs to bring an image of piranha teeth to his mind, climbed steadily from bottom left to top right of the screen. With another rattle of the keys, the graph disappeared, to be replaced by an endless procession of numbers such as Paolino had never seen.

"These numbers go all the way back to our first data entry clerk. There never was another one like Barbara Blackburn. The most conscientious data entry clerk there's ever been."

The old man sat down and rubbed a hand over his smooth scalp.

"And yet this infallible woman, this genius, on 8 June, 1991, made a mistake. A stupid mistake of two fine grades. A 4a that should have been a 4c. And nobody realised. Only I know about it, and you're the only person I've told. I suppose you could go around telling everyone, and nobody would believe you. You're just a child, but now you know that everything's wrong. Over the years, do you know what that mistake of two fine grades has become? Billions! Billions! The computers can grind out numbers all they like. The mistake is at the core, beneath all their numbers, and it's growing bigger and bigger!"

He turned the monitor back around now, played his keyboard one more time and the machine's whir stopped. The monitor went black. In the shadowy room now lit only by a desk lamp, Paolino could still see numbers dancing in the dark.

"The company's grown big, huge, with thousands of shareholders, subsidiaries around the globe, and all of them grinding out nothing but wrong numbers. Whole nations base their education decisions upon them, erecting school systems to rival each other for a share of the future for their young people. And each one is built on bad foundations, like that famous tower in your homeland. The whole world is distorted by this mistake, the only mistake in the life of Barbara Blackburn, that giant of data entry, that genius of the keyboard."

Eddy Lorenz stood up then. He looked over at the boy and the look in his eyes changed. There was harmony once more in his face. It was all smile as he said: "And do you know what I think? I think she did it on purpose." He grabbed his jacket and walked to the door, looked back and added: "You and I have never met, never known each other." And then he walked out with a gait Paolino thought of as leggiero, humming 'La donna è mobile...'.

After a few moments, Paolino turned off the desk lamp and, dragging his black sack behind him, returned to his mother.

"And where have you been this time, figlio mio?"

"Oh. Just... Being curious."

"You're incorrigible! Now, let's get you home, Paolino. You have school tomorrow."

Monday, 30 May 2016

The Teacher With A Thousand Faces

"Heaven and hell are within us, and all the gods are within us."
 Joseph Campbell - The Power of Myth

"I mistrust all systematizers and I avoid them. The will to a system is a lack of integrity." 
Friedrich Nietzsche - Twilight of the Idols

I - The Beginning

In the beginning was the word, and the word needed teaching, and the teacher was made flesh. In the beginning the classroom was empty and bounteous, like a secret garden. The word adorned the wall displays. The cupboards were stocked. All things obeyed a natural order and ever would. In the beginning the world was flat, and East was East. In the beginning, there was time, too. Kronos reigned, and the titanic ringing of the bell had not yet been heard. In the beginning Zarathustra stood before the sun to address it. The teacher rehearsed her plan, in her element.

II - The Call to Adventure

In that wait so like every other wait, a shadow is cast. A serpent enters. A message is received. Perhaps she sees an unknown face walking purposefully up the corridor, and presupposes an unannounced inspection, or an intruder. Perhaps a child walks in, in excitement, in tears, in silence. Perhaps a colleague walks by and smiles incongruously, or fails to conspicuously. The computer crashes or the projector is extinguished. She realises an error or an omission and falters. Her plan, juncture of past and future, seems now as if written by the rules of another language, a foreign philosophy.

III - Crossing the Threshhold

The last minute before the bell stretches indefinitely towards an uncertain fate. The teacher stands on the threshold but daren't enter. She can only dwell. For a moment, she is Edith, looking back upon the wreckage of the past. For another Orpheus, looking for some certainty about the future. But her destiny is neither to become a pillar of salt, nor a lyre-player to an indifferent world. The world teems with giants upon whose shoulders to stand, and the word must be taught.

IV - The Supreme Ordeal

In that interminable minute, she must reclaim her power, her place, her present. In every corner of the room stand ghosts: the observer, the inspector, the mentor, the parent, the colleague, the trainee, the journalist, the Secretary of State herself. Each inspires fear, but the time of her navel-gazing is over. She is Appollo, entering the temple of the oracle to slay Pytho, coiled upon the omphalos. She is The Boy Who Lived plotting the death of Nagini. She crushes the serpent's head, and the serpent bruises her heel. As the spectres fade, she learns that she has no worse critic than herself.

V - The Road Back

The ticking of the clock urges her on now. Twenty seconds are left, or twenty years. After blinding the Cyclops, Odysseus sets sail. She adapts her plan, checks, changes course and returns in ever-decreasing circles, pushed on by the winds of East, North and South. She ties herself to the mast to resist the siren songs. Nothing will tempt her from her path. No alien pedagogies will alter her practice. No management culture will undermine her professionalism.

VI - The Transformation

And so, by way of the West she returns from the East. The world is no longer flat, and her time is now hers. A thousand faces she has worn on her journey to find herself, to discover that she is no hero. A thousand more will she wear to help her students on their separate paths. She lives no longer in myth. Myth lives in her, and each child will find their struggle reflected in her eyes.

VII - The (Eternal) Return

The bell rings. She opens the door to her class of heroes - each, like her, on their way to learning and re-learning their humanity. It is circle time.

Thursday, 12 May 2016

Atlas Mugged

“If you don't know, the thing to do is not to get scared, but to learn.” 

Atlas's classroom had no doors. Its roof was the dome of the sky, which he held aloft, that his students may be free of the whims of capricious gods. This burden he bore without complaint, but men too can be capricious.

When Atlas taught, shadows held no fear. Children wondered at the light, and the shapes and meanings of the world outside and the one inside were revealed to them by and by. Stories were often told that never ended, though truths and questions were sometimes arrived at. Some of these the children forgot. Some they recalled. Some they couldn't recall, yet had not forgotten.

Whether the earth beneath him grew smaller, or whether men grew larger cannot now be ascertained. I suspect we only grew more numerous, but my conjectures are not to be trusted. Others apocryphally suggest that in his twilight hour, Zeus played one final trick upon the world and Atlas

Holding court at his ankles, some men began to tell stories with endings. Others, to ask questions they already knew the answers to. Had they attended more closely to their role as teachers, they may have made better students, but teaching and learning were not their preoccupation. Their eyes fixed upon an empty empyrean, they had begun to sense power.

Before long, some stood upon the god's bent knee and proclaimed their privilege. "Children should learn their place," rained down their words. Atlas did not shrug.

Emboldened, others outdid the first and stood upon his arched back, declaiming mankind's freedom. "Children should learn their power," they announced mellifluously and without discernible irony. Atlas yet did not shrug.

Arrogantly, yet more overtook them. They perched upon his straining shoulders and laid claim to the horizon. "Children should learn their facts," was their military mantra. Still, Atlas did not shrug.

Then came the day that one man climbed into Atlas's ear. History records his name as John Galt. He spoke, and his voice echoed out like a clarion call from that titanic cave, which had once reverberated with the sound of Zeus's own thunder.

"Long have you carried the celestial sphere aloft, for Gods who abandoned you here between Heaven and Earth. Now it is time to set your burden down, for we are the masters of our destiny."

Atlas obeyed.

What abyss we fell into then, or fell upon us, no one can say, for no map of it exists and we have lost the art of storytelling. Evidence cannot completely discount the theory that Atlas lifted us out of it, and still to this day has not shrugged.

In my sleep I see him there, holding up the world and trampling the heavens underfoot, with all-too-human grit but no fire left to teach.

Wednesday, 4 May 2016

Defining Teacher Professionalism

A talk to the College of Teaching conference 
Sheffield Hallam University Institute of Education
May 4th, 2016

I’m a teacher. A bog standard, run-of-the-mill, common variety teacher.  So why on Earth am I here? I’ve been invited to talk today about defining teacher professionalism, but who am I to do that?

If you’ll indulge me, I’d like to tell you about how I came to be on this stage, and how I think we can all put our profession onto a surer footing. It’s a story in 3 acts.  It has a setup, a confrontation, and a resolution. Without further ado then, I give you... 

Act I: The Setup

I’ve been in the classroom for 12 years and my career hasn’t been a straightforward one. Whose is? Sparing you the details, two years ago I hit a wall. My health left me and I was left contemplating never seeing the inside of a classroom again, and it horrified me. Teaching’s perhaps unique in this: that a day off sick is wracked with guilt, and a week feels like fighting withdrawal. Imagine three months.

How did it come about? Six of the eight years I worked at my previous school were spent in special measures. (It wasn’t all my doing, I promise!) In that time, I saw three different headteachers come and go, each with their own version of ‘What Ofsted wants’, and their own regime for achieving it. Sometimes more than one regime! Simultaneously! All stratagems and no strategy.  All motto and no ethos.

I can’t do justice in the time I’ve got to the instability of working in that climate. I saw colleagues made redundant and others pushed out; I saw many leave the school, and some leave the profession altogether. Most were outstanding. All were capable of being. Eventually, I couldn’t keep up with it all. I still can’t shake the feeling that we were all set up to fail.

If I can draw a parallel, it seems to me the teaching profession is itself at that stage, with a recruitment and retention ‘challenge’, incidence of mental health problems said to be on the rise among teachers and students, and a constantly shifting framework of policy and accountability.
Like I was, I think the teaching profession is down, but not out. I knew I didn’t want to be anything less than a teacher. And it was that belief that got me back on my feet and back in the classroom.  As teachers, we know we don’t want to be anything less than trusted professionals, and it is this belief that will get us back into the policy making circle. Let’s face it: Right now, we are nowhere near it.

We need to believe policies have our interests and those of our students at heart, and we need to believe in ourselves and our ability to implement those policies. Without that, nothing in education can ever truly succeed, because teaching is an ethical profession.

I hope the College Of Teaching can help us to achieve the agency we need to be ethical professionals.  Through it, we should look to decide for ourselves what standards we will be held to, and what training we want and need. In other words, what is valuable to us, what makes us valuable, and what our values are. Without that, we have no professional identity. We are left with nothing but the labels others pin on us to define us.

Anyway, enough about the college. Let’s talk about me.

Act II: The Confrontation

It was very odd approaching teaching again after time out, after leaving a school whose community, as leader of parental engagement, I had worked so hard with, and whose families had worked their way into my heart. Once bitten, twice shy, as the saying goes. So I was wary of investing myself emotionally again. Of course, you can’t teach like that. You can’t play it safe. At least I can’t – not very well. As teachers we confront so many problems, our own and others’.

What I realised after a while was that I was actually in a position of some strength. Until that point, I felt schools were shopping for us, for me, with their job specifications and person specifications, essential and desirable skills, and I had to dress myself up on paper to meet their requirements. It also meant I had to be competitive. I had to beat you to the job.

That protectionism that came, for me, as a result of my illness, led me to a new position: I was shopping for an employer who wouldn’t treat me like that again. And you know what? It had nothing to do with Ofsted ratings or league table rankings, and everything to do with ethos. (Remember ethos? That was Act I.)  I was shopping for a school as much as a school was shopping for a teacher, and it made every conversation about a job a confrontation on equal terms.

But no confrontation is easy.  And perhaps that’s why teaching isn’t. Daily we are confronted with choices to make, students to prioritise, and a workload that keeps on growing.

What keeps me going is knowing that I’m supported. When I got back on my feet, I had support from so many that I can’t list them all here. Chief among them my union, ex-colleagues, teacher friends, and even an Ofsted inspector who’d once walked into my classroom and made me cry. (Long story. Great guy.) I started tweeting, and found I’d wandered into the largest staffroom in the world.

We need to be supported as teachers. When we make our tough choices on a daily basis, we need to be trusted to make them. We need to be autonomous, but not alone, in making those choices. And we need to know that when we make mistakes, we are no less professional, because we learn from them. Building on that, we need to be partners in the development of education policy, be it in our schools, our multi-academy trusts, our regions or nationally, because teaching is a collaborative profession.

I hope the College Of Teaching can help us to achieve the agency we need to be collaborative professionals. With it, we should look to build networks of support for every aspect of our practice so that we never confront a new situation alone. Without that, we have no professional society. We are each walking a tightrope, which I’m sure you’re alright with, but as for me...

it’s a beautiful risk too far without a safety net.

Act III – A Resolution

As part of my fightback to fitness, I made a resolution. I’ve never stuck to one before, but this one has stuck to me. I decided to take charge of my own CPD and to look beyond my classroom walls. I started tweeting, as I mentioned before, but I also started attending conferences, going to the places where decisions about my profession were being made, but where very few teachers are ever to be seen, and events where I’d always wanted to go but had never had the energy or never made the time for.

I went to ResearchEd and my eyes opened to a whole new world of professional learning. I went back a year later, and walked out to write a book. I’d met Rene Kneyber after his presentation on a book called Flip The System, and it sang to me. I went off and read the book and was determined we needed a UK version, so with two colleagues, one of whom teaches in York and whom I’d never met until that day, the other of whom was one of those outstanding teachers I mentioned had left my last school, we put together a proposal for Routledge, and we’ve just recently signed the contract.

I’ll never again be the teacher I was before my illness. For what seemed like an age, that felt like a loss. Now, I’m not so sure it is.

By engaging with my profession at every level, from classroom practice to political philosophies of education, I know more about teaching and my place in it than I ever have. That’s enriched my teaching, and it’s made me more resilient.

We need to be knowledgeable as teachers, not just about our subject, but also about pedagogies, not just about practice but about policies. And the knowledge we as a body have and create every day in classrooms should be heard, and should inform those that make the policies, because teaching is an informed profession.

So I hope the College Of Teaching can help us to achieve the agency we need to be informed professionals. By it, we should look to engage with the best that has been thought and said about teaching so that we too can stand on the shoulders of giants and share the view with our students. Without that, we have no professional capital. We are left with myths parading as facts and our resolve worn away by accountability procedures that do nothing to improve educational outcomes.

That brings me to the end of this story, and you’ll have noticed it’s a bit of a cliffhanger. Will they? Won’t they? What happens next?  That is the story we have yet to write together: the story of how teachers became true professionals. I hope the College Of Teaching will be instrumental in that. I hope Flip The System UK will be too. I know for a fact that if it doesn’t come from each of us, it won’t come at all, and so I leave you to ponder what we have… 

What could have been… 

And what might be…

Thank you.

Wednesday, 27 April 2016

A Ministerial Message

After Franz Kafka*

From her political deathbed**, the Secretary of State has sent you a message; you, the least assuming teacher of the least assessed year group of the most rural school. Barely graced as you are by the light of the imperial sun (which, in hushed tones, all those around you say hangs lower in the sky than it used to), the shadows around you are long, but your eye is still trained daily on the glory of an incandescent firmament, and this alone makes you worthy of the ailing minister's epistle.

Distrustful of the written form, which has failed emperors and her alike before, the Secretary has not dispatched a missive but recorded a video message. It is scripted of course, but with the addition of her earnest facial expressions and firm, friendly tone, how could you fail to understand her? Neither is this her first attempt to correspond with teachers, so gone now is the black background, ingenuously and erroneously designed to remove distractions from her previous, sombre communiqué.  Lessons have been learned, and this message is recorded in a bright, middle-class home office. What could be more familiar and reassuring to you than that?

The message is recorded, and the Secretary on her political deathbed is initially pleased with it. There is a look on the media management intern's face as he publishes the video that troubles her, but nothing is said between them (as how could it be?), and it is posted. Her unease will soon lift. Death's proximity makes all things lighter.

In an instant, the Secretary of State is speaking to you. Her digital facsimile stares you in the eye and you hear, but cannot understand, the message. For how could you? You know it is there, but it struggles to connect in your mind with the right meanings.

Powerful words though they are, bearing the ministerial seal as they do, they fight in your mind through a throng of parliamentary secretaries and press advisers who you know vetted and approved them. They are the grey-clad ceremonial guard of all political deaths, and as you imagine them, the Secretary's words lose some of their motive power.

Having made it past this first hurdle, they have yet to push past an army of spads, wonks, think tanks and focus groups that you know helped to forge them into weapons. The army is not large, but it is armed and well organised, and as you hear their secret strategising, the message loses some of its voice.

Should the words be as indefatigable as the Secretary herself, having made it this far, they will yet have to compete for your attention with the amassed media messages that besiege your mind. As you think of those, you almost forget there was a message, and find yourself fascinated by her clothes, by the ornaments on the window-sill behind her. (Why two clocks?)

If they could break that siege (but that could never happen!) how fast those words would fly, and soon you would know with certainty the Secretary's dying wish, but you sit before your screen remembering only vaguely that she has invited you to ask her a question.

You think wryly that there is no question you could ask that she might understand, and dream instead of dancing together.

* This story is inspired by Franz Kafka's An Imperial Message, available to read here.
** We are given to understand that every politician is perennially on his or her political deathbed, prey each passing second to the ardours of public opinion and shifting sands of accountability. The life political, by this token, is the most existential there is, and most painful. Whether this is a myth concocted by politicians to dissimulate the trappings of power, or a rightful balance our ancestors imbued democracy with, is hotly debated in certain esoteric societies. 

Wednesday, 13 April 2016

The Academy Of Babel

"Perhaps knowledge succeeds in engendering knowledge, ideas in transforming themselves and modifying one another (but how? - historians have not yet enlightened us on this point)."
Michel Foucault, The Order Of Things

"Someone, you or me, comes forward and says: I would like to learn to live finally.
Finally but why?
To learn to live: a strange watchword. [...] Will we ever know how to live and first 
of all what "to learn to live" means? And why finally?"
Jacques Derrida, Specters of Marx

A spectre haunts the Academy
I cling yet to a memory of his face. My teacher. My mentor. My guide to the learned mysteries and invented masteries of the Academy. Yet it is like a face drawn in sand at the edge of the sea; Each new discovery threatens to erase him. The infinite nature of the Academy makes a mockery of my capacity to learn, but I know that this fading face and I are bound by an ineffable logic. Without me, he will cease to be. As will I without him. 

My epistème, the Academy is the licensor of all that I know, and emancipator of all that I have forgotten. Such mocking forgetfulness, I am certain my master knew intimately, but he omitted to acquaint me with its ways. Wasn't I worthy of such initiation? Or have I forgotten it? My lifetime has been spent wandering the hexagonal classrooms that make up the Academy's mystical architecture. Now, in the twilight imposed by my waning sight, I am forced to stop in this darkened classroom, and reflect.

I am uncertain how I came to be in the Academy, whether I was born in it or brought to it. It seems that any answer I might give to that question would be tantamount to a myth of origins, and I am the least worthy subject for such a grand narrative. Far more worthy of the little time I have left is the story of the Academy itself, were it possible to tell it. The proliferation of such epics testifies to the value of the endeavour: They are to be found in many a hexagon, pored over by zealous disciples, transcribed by dutiful scholars, and glanced at with or without reverence by lost souls like myself.

Some surmise from such volumes that the Academy is infinite in space, and has neither beginning nor end in time. Others, from sources just as credible, infer that it was created and awaits its destruction. It is measurable, with enough determination and discipline. Those of the first persuasion compete feverishly for classrooms within which to trade new, ephemeral and disruptive ideas. Those who adhere to the latter dogma purge the Academy of heresies and with missionary zeal ensure their canonical texts make their way to every hexagon. To the Disruptors, the future of the Academy is a beautiful blank page, and the past a foreign country. To the Gideons, the future is an evil imminent, and only the lessons of golden ages past can prepare us for it.

A mystical architecture
Among the teachers and students of the Academy (where everyone is both a teacher and a student), the Wanderers outnumber the warrior philosophers of these eternal clans. Among them, some have formed alliances: to arbitrate truces, to sue for truth and reconciliation, to care for the casualties of the conflict, even to codify the rules of engagement. My master was a Wanderer. Long after the abrupt end of my apprenticeship, I too committed to the undecided life. With and without him, like most Wanderers, I have fought for the Gideons, stood up for the Disruptors, and aided and abated a myriad of mediations. Not all my efforts have been in vain.

In my senectitude, through classroom after classroom, I have felt a spectre haunting the Academy. Not the spectral architect, article of faith of the Gideons, nor the spectral whiteness of the Disruptors' unwritten futures, but the spectre of a secret, hidden in plain sight. Having but little of that sense left, I can barely grasp at its portent: Only now at the end of my wandering have my steps felt as the result of my own agency, and a great laughter has seized my breast.

Some believe that among all the hexagons, somewhere is to be found the hexagon, the first and last classroom, the alpha and the omega, in which is contained the source code of all the teachings of all the classrooms of the Academy. As I write these words in perceptibly growing darkness, I fancy that I have found it. It resembles a cave, and shadows dance upon its walls. My teacher is gone, and I know that I will never leave this classroom.

Rest, rest perturbed Spirit! Finally, I have learned to live.

The Academy is unlimited, and cyclical.

Monday, 21 March 2016

A Radical Power Shift

The measures set out in the Government's Educational Excellence Everywhere (EEE) white paper are not undemocratic. Regardless of the electoral turnout or the content of the pre-election manifesto, any elected executive in the UK's parliamentary democracy is mandated to put before both Houses whatever legislative programme it chooses.

Moreover, where legislation isn't necessary, the executive can impose any reform agenda it wants, provided its imposition isn't in contravention of the Disability Discrimination Act (1995) or the Human Rights Act (1998), or likely to be subject to judicial review under ultra vires provisions, that is to say that its imposition could be ruled unreasonable or procedurally defective.

As little or no legislation is needed to effect the changes set out in the EEE white paper, and as its implementation is unlikely to be struck down by the judiciary, anyone who argues that it is undemocratic is obfuscating or thinking wishfully.

Alternatively, they are simply using the wrong word.

The EEE represents, unarguably, a substantial power grab from local to central government. Equally, it represents a substantial transfer of assets and public money to the private sector. In both cases, this could be argued to be anti-democratic.

What is democracy? Simply put, it is a governmental system which allows people to hold their political leaders to account. They do this at the ballot box, but, as my Year 10 reminded me today, in a myriad of other ways too: protest and demonstrations, petitions and letters, campaigns and advocacy, litigation, membership of parties and pressure groups, and most importantly, according to them (and this made me proud) by getting an education. Democracy thrives on tolerance of the expression of all these views, and on people's ability to effect change.

Cameron, D, A Radical Power Shift, in The Guardian, 17/02/2009

One of the key arguments against proportional representation in the UK is that it breaks the link between the constituency and their MP. Localism is seen as key to ensuring the legitimacy of representatives in Parliament. Yet the very advocates of this localism are the same who will gladly sacrifice it in the case of the coercive total academisation of schools in England.

Who will a parent turn to if an Academy Head of School proves unsatisfactory in their handling of a situation? The answer is an unelected board of trustees, the trustees of a (albeit not-for-profit) private legal entity. Where will its headquarters be? Well, anywhere they choose it to be. You may be lucky and it may be up the road, or you may be unlucky and it may be in another county. According to the white paper, it is intended that escalating complaints to the DfE will be streamlined. And an ombudsman put in place. Alternatively, there are RSCs and a NSC. In the case of financial irregularities, I can only assume the regulator will be the Charities Commission.

Is that any clearer than the byzantine machinery of local government? No. Which is no defence of that machinery, but a suggestion that a government truly committed to localism and democratic accountability might have focused their reform agenda on improving that, rather than undermining it.

And who will you be able to vote out when you are dissatisfied? Nobody. Nobody with any accountability for any of it. The only solution in the self-improving system is to spin the wheel of fortune and pray for a better outcome in the MAT stakes. Meanwhile, the idea that schools will become any less of a political football because of a more school-led system is entirely erroneous. Only one lever will be left for politicians, and they will use it at every opportunity: the curriculum. Show me the MAT that will allow its schools to opt out of league tables. Show me the consumer parent who will accept a product without a price tag. And who will continue to suffer from that?

The liberal economic thinking that underpins this reform agenda seems to dictate that removing opportunities for democratic accountability will make the electorate value those opportunities more. The opposite may be true: that demand for democracy is plummeting and supply is responding to that.

After all, it is all perfectly democratic. We voted for it.

May the odds be ever in your favour.