Saturday, 6 April 2019

The Benefits and Risks of Professionalism

A talk given at #BrewEdEY in Twickenham on 06/04/19.
With thanks to Simona McKenzie.

I’m here to talk to you today with humility. I am not an early years professional and I couldn’t be. I did have an early years setting operating out of my home for a number of years. Ofsted called it outstanding, but even that is short-selling the unbelievable hard work of educating and caring, and the dedication to children and families put in by the woman whose husband I am.

For my part, I love babies. Not so much 2yos. I do have a bit of a reputation as a baby whisperer, but I don’t think I’m going to make a career of it now. Maybe you’ll persuade me otherwise today…
What I do know a little about is professionalism in education. I’ve dedicated quite a long time to researching it, and that’s what I’d like to explore with you today. I won’t talk too long, I hope and I’m happy to give way at any time to questions or to be put in my place.

You’ll notice my title is even unsure of itself. I don’t want to label anyone against their will. I hope that by the end of this presentation I’ll have made a strong case for identifying as a teacher, but I’m just as open to being persuaded to identify as a carer.

So to professionalism… What do we mean by it?

It’s a long question to answer, and the more I look into it, the less I realise I know.

But we can make a useful distinction between professionalism as we would like it to be, and professionalism as we experience it.

Across the teaching profession globally, there is a growing sense that what we experience as professionalisation is not what it ought to be. That what we experience is actually a dehumanisation of our work, not just of ourselves, but also of our charges.

What Verity Campbell-Barr - Associate Professor at the Plymouth Institute of Education - talks about here in her paper on the silencing of the knowledge base in early years.

Is this something that echoes with you?

In the process of editing our book on the state of teacher professionalism in the UK, Lucy Rycroft-Smith and I worked hard to develop an expansive, democratic model for what it might look like and include.

Lucy is now Research and Communications Officer for Cambridge Mathematics.

We based our definition on the idea of agency. And we did that because it was the one thing we’d had taken from us as so-called professionals. It’s a long story, but 6 years in special measures is … a learning curve.

We found, among the 40 contributors to the book, that five main themes arose, five key ways to think of teachers’ professional agency. Cognitive, collective, ethical, political and global aspects of agency.

If you’re looking for the book, it’s got the orange colour. We gave teachers the agency to choose, and that’s what they went for. I wanted white, but I love my orange book now, and for many reasons it was the right choice.

Anyway. I’m going to go there now. I realise it’s the weekend. It’s the start of the holidays. It’s still early. It’s supposed to be a relaxed event…

But I’m going to go there anyway and I’m sorry.

What do we mean by cognitive agency?

The world of EY has had recent experience of what it isn’t. What it isn’t is this report.

Based on observations by an inspectorate ostensibly looking for an evidence-led approach, but put together by an inspectorate without a feeling for the sector as a whole, or evidently for the realities of professionals on the ground.

But take this response from Colin Richards, HMI. He wrote for Schools Week bemoaning – not the report – but the poor sales pitch. And fair enough, too. But look at the wording. Early Years professionals are merely the report’s audience. Passive receivers. Consumers.

Janet Downs is the author of The Truth About Our Schools. She is much closer to the nub.

The problem remains that professionalism isn’t about entirely free choices. It is about being in a dynamic relationship with professional knowledge, and children!

Cognitive agency then is about placing teachers as experts in managing the interaction between children and a curriculum. In doing that, we become producers of knowledge.

But for whom?

Collective agency is about networks.

We create, we produce knowledge, in and for networks. As Rosario Merida Serrano of the University of Cordoba shows in her 2017 paper, properly conceived and implemented, a network is is the opposite of a hierarchy.

In a network, everyone brings expertise, and everyone’s contribution is equally valued.

Imagine a report on literacy in the early years coming out of a network like that…

Now that would be a bold beginning!

The strength of networks is that they make diversity visible.

And that’s not just diversity of children and communities and needs… This quote is from a paper on early years mathematics. Diversity here relates to the different views teachers had of the same learning activities pertaining to number. And despite widely different views held, the network of teachers studied in this paper nonetheless began to develop a common professional language… across the whole of Sweden!

Now if that doesn’t put the lie to the social network potential of political edu-Twitter and its endless trad/prog dichotomy, I don’t know what will. If the individuals involved were invested in moving beyond their culture war, the evidence suggests they easily could.

Because we do depend on networks to solve problems, but networks depend on us for those solutions to be inclusive and sustainable..

But anyway, I’m conscious I’ve already started using the word teachers. I’ll try to be more careful.

Education depends on more than just knowledge and networks, though. Without a sense of values – a moral compass – education can be a destructive force.

Professionalism in education means being for the public good. It doesn’t matter if your service is paid for by the public or not., If you are not for the public good in education, then you aren’t educating children for sustainable and sustained wellbeing or prosperity.

The evidence shows that when parents are positioned as consumers of educational services for their children, they are led by short-term, exclusionary aims. Marianne Fenech at the University of Sydney has worked with early years settings and communities and shown that educators are well placed to intentionally cultivate activist collaborations.

There’s those networks again. Imbued with values. An ethical purpose. They become powerful advocates for inclusion.

And there’s a lot more to educational ethics than that, but consider how the word ‘care’ is portrayed, as opposed to the word ‘teach’, for example.

Where is the moral imperative of teaching in that? And where is the educational value of care?
And why? And how do we change that?

Should I become an educational carer? Or should Simona become a moral teacher?

You know what? I’m pretty sure she already is. But is that enough?

Tamara Cumming is Research Fellow at the School of Teacher Education of Charles Sturt University in Australia. The case study I’ve quoted from is a fantastic example of the interaction between environment and educator. Those interactions can affect identity, self-efficacy beliefs, productivity, wellbeing, capacity to care… And the environment can either enable or constrain those things.

That’s what makes professionalism in education political.

For the good of our students – and our own, because the two are entwined – we have to be active in resisting constraining environments and practices. We have to have a voice in our workplaces, in our communities, in our district and local councils and in Westminster.

And we can’t do it on our own.

There’s those networks again! And the best networks we’ve come up with as educators to give us that voice is unions. Did you know that teacher unions represent 130% of the teacher population.

You heard me right. People don’t stop paying in after they leave the classroom. That’s their worth to us.

And Denmark here provides a concrete example of what happens if that sense of educational professionalism isn’t developed and nurtured.  

Dristig begyndelse, anyone?

And that brings me to the last bit of my sales pitch. The bit where I try to scare you into agreeing with me.

Right now, the OECD is running two global studies on the quality of ECEC.

PISA tests for 2yos. Couldn’t happen, could it?

Tata Mbugua is professor of education at the University of Scranton in Pennsylvania. The paper I’m quoting from here is co-written with Barbara Trube, professor of education at Ohio University. Early Years education is becoming a global focus, and rightly so. In this initial phase, a lot of focus will be on developing countries in light of the Sustainable Development Goals. And that’s wonderful.

But without teacher-to-teacher communication across boundaries, delivering on those goals may be achieved in less than professional ways, and as we’ve seen, that means less than sustainable ways for the children and communities involved. Our government’s support for private education in the developing world already has known negative impact.

And that’s why professionalism in education is global. We’re not just here. We’re everywhere.

So let me finish with an appeal to you, which I hope will be refreshing in these times of wall-to-wall Brexit.

We need you more than you need us.

I, for one, have whole-heartedly embraced the message in this address by Andrew Gibbons.

I recognise the value and power of the early years, and I beg you to embrace your professionalism for the good of us all.

Whether you are the last bastion of resistance against the technocratic take-over of education, or the first staging post in the democratic adventure that lies beyond, or both, I offer you my unconditional professional regard, and thank you for listening to me.

Saturday, 17 March 2018

Driving Our Profession Forward

A talk given at the Queen's University, Belfast Flip the System seminar.
15 March, 2018

This is a title with a lot of assumptions.

First, the very notion of profession. Used constantly to define us, and yet poorly defined in itself. In turns a compliment – what professionalism! - or a reprimand – that’s not very professional! - an aspiration – to be or become a professional - or a cry for help – treat me like a professional!

Then that little word ‘our’. Whose? Politicians’? Academics’? Progressives? Traditionalists? Primary? Secondary? EYFS? Mainstream? PRUs? Special Schools? NQTs? SLTs?

And ‘driving forward’. Where to? Why? At what speed and at what cost? Along what route and according to what map?

And who’s at the wheel exactly?

These questions form the locus of what Flip the System UK offers answers to and explores. Offers answers to because some of these questions have definite answers – answers which arise from taking the time and care to define our terms. Explores because some of these questions don’t have singular answers – they invite and welcome plurality.

Lucy’s introduction to the book is a paean to plurality. By contrast, our experience of the classroom and of leadership is one redolent with compliance, coercion and cooption, characterised by voicelessness and powerlessness. And we know this is echoed by so many of our colleagues across the UK. We found solace in the original Flip the System, a brave and powerful book which, at our lowest ebb, showed us both that we were not alone, and gave us hope that we could change things – not just for ourselves but for everyone working in a school or college.

The fundamental barrier to our professionalism is exclusion. If we are any kind of profession at all, we are one that excludes. Presently, we do that to the toll of nearly 50,000 teachers each year in England alone. That’s two and a half times the total teaching workforce of Northern Ireland. 

There are a quarter of a million qualified teachers in England who choose not to teach. That is a profession that looks itself in the mirror… and shudders. If we are to be a true profession – a proud and fearless one - we must be collegiate, inclusive, representative.

Toxic weather in our classrooms and staffrooms.


Do we blame politicians? Well, yes. If you want a savage indictment of the political climate that is making for toxic weather in our classrooms and staffrooms, you need look no further than Julian Critchley’s chapter on Why Policy Makers Make Mistakes.

But do we stop there? No. Our little book is chock full of hope and of alternatives, and our insight, one we hope we can all get behind, is that they are all equally valid, so long as they adhere to three defining aspects of professionalism: that they are informed, that they are collaborative and that they are ethical.

One thing to us is clear: The system of top-down, punitive accountability is bankrupt. We are all piled into the passenger seats – or the boot (not to mention all those thrown under the wheels) – of a car whose pilot is both single-minded and erratic, both all-powerful and unaccountable.

That’s not driving our profession forward. It is driving us up the wall… Or over a cliff.

Conceived another way, we are all chauffeuring a car whose only passenger is at once authoritarian and flighty.

That’s not driving our profession forward either. It’s Driving Miss … Crazy.

As Tony Gallagher says in this Flip the System UK  chapter, Northern Ireland has been sheltered from the worst impacts of neoliberal market reforms. Mainly, it has been spared by its history and its geography.

Geographically, the relatively small size of the country has by and large made for a better-integrated system. There is perhaps less dissonance here between a national curriculum and the need for regional character. Stakeholders are a tighter-knit group and there are few shadows for think tanks and interest groups to hide in.

Historically, the drive for peace and reconciliation among Northern Ireland’s communities has put education in an enviable position. Where, in England, the discourse of schools as a cure-all for society’s ills is a vehicle for constant change and pressure, here by contrast education has been given one clear aim: teach peace.

And it is this aim, supported by that regional co-ownership of education, that make Northern Ireland unique among the UK’s parallel systems.

Tony will talk more about his own chapter, and the importance of teacher professionalism in building a sustainable system upon this strong sociocultural foundation. 

For my part, I want to note that building a sustainable system is never something that is done and dusted. Sustainability is an ongoing process of revision and adaptation. There is no magic bullet, but we can build the institutions that make crises avoidable and change a far less stressful occurrence. In other words, a democratic system.

I want to leave you with a couple of remarks on the direction of travel to drive our profession forward.

In England, we need more cars and more drivers, for a start. We don’t all fit on the National Curriculum coach, and it’s beginning to feel oddly like a scene from Speed on board in any case.

We need common destinations and a highway code, for sure. But we also need the infrastructure that allows us to choose our pit stops and our detours, our mood music and our rate of progress. None of which takes away from the quality of education each of our students receives, but without doubt improves the benefits we will all feel from a better education system.

And how do we get there? Flip the System UK’s key tenet is that we do it by pushing together, not pulling apart. We reject the model of international comparison embodied by PISA, one that can only ever justify top-down intervention and, sticking with my driving metaphor, a chop-shop approach to system reform.

But that doesn’t mean we can’t learn from each other – classroom to classroom, university faculty to university faculty, classroom to university faculty and vice versa.

What Northern Ireland teaches us is that giving primacy to social cohesion – in other words, to democracy and representation – and that honouring the link between schools and their broad communities are the strongest foundations for a truly inclusive state education system.

What England teaches us, by negative example, is the result of doing the opposite, of giving primacy to outcomes. Division and entrenchment, stress and a spiralling crisis in teacher recruitment and retention, and a school system that increasingly excludes the most vulnerable students.

But as Tony’s chapter shows, that isn’t a justification for complacency either. To sustain the democratic ethos of education, the only way is teacher professionalism.

And that can only come from teachers themselves. With apologies to academics and politicians in the room, your job can’t be to define it for us, but to support us to define it for ourselves. That is democracy, and we are its drivers.

After all, revolutions don’t drive themselves. 

Who’s at the wheel? We are.

Q&A - Policy Levers, Deliverology, and Nudge


Sunday, 24 September 2017

Invisible Academies (Chapter 4)

To Chapter 1
To Chapter 3

The Aurion Academy

We traveled to the Aurion Academy by following the White City's northern border. The five-mile journey seemed interminable, most of the fortnight spent in a darkness akin to a polar winter, always in the shadow of the city wall. There is no doubt that my escort, and the letter stamped with your seal, most venerable Secretary, sped us on our way. Yet, as a foreigner to this land, it is hard not to feel the checkpoints and the bureaucracy of this wondrous capital as so many petty exercises of power. Please do not be offended. I understand the reasons for their existence. The security of the Emperor and his citizens is paramount. I describe only my baser emotions, which sometimes screamed inside me that there must be a better way to secure it. But how could I presume to know such a thing?

Leaving behind many academies in that perpetual shade, gradually the daylight hours extended as we made our way southward to the Western gate. Here, the city opens out into splendid parks. The buildings are lower, and the light of the afternoon Sun feels like a luxury in itself, in this already privileged neighbourhood. Facing the gate is a building made entirely and almost seamlessly of glass, as if blown in a single piece by an artisan deity. The Aurion Academy, built on the orders of the Emperor and to the specifications of his most successful merchants, has only one purpose: to secure the future of (and for) the Empire.

Keen to finally continue my work for you, I wasted no time in entering. From the outside, the glass structure and its myriad reflections impose on the mind of the observer a perhaps suspicious awe - a feeling of being watched by a thousand eyes or maybe one, of standing in the presence of something that doesn't belong, yet lets you know that it is you that doesn't. Upon crossing it, the line between the outside and inside worlds of the Academy seems almost non-existent. Once inside, the feeling of being part of something greater than oneself is immediate, and absorbing. The familiar parks and buildings, the people, the horizon of the Western Gate and its intimation of the Empire beyond are all visible, yet strangely distanced and more sharply defined by the slight tint of the glass. Layered atop these external surroundings is a spectral reflection of the Academy's interior. In effect, to enter is to become an observer - of the world, and of oneself.

There are no classrooms. The only physical separation intended by the architects (and even then, one senses, under duress by the realities of real estate) are the floors, joined by broad staircases and the occasional lift. Initially, I am told, there were attempts to re-create the classrooms of old using temporary partition walls. When these were removed, teachers created their own from stacks of chairs, desks and other sundry resources. These teachers, it was concluded, were themselves the obstruction. They too were removed. A number of others, it is said, were driven to madness by the space. It took a generation to get the teachers the building demanded. They are called Guides.

It is unclear what the effect of the early turmoil was on the first students, who were then known as Dreamers. Some are Guides now. Some are homeless. Some live far outside the city wall, and most live indiscernibly from how their parents and grand-parents lived before them. In short, they have re-joined the rest of the dreamers that make up the Empire's incomparable population. On the whole, the impact of their education is hoped to have been on their outlook, though nobody has devised a way to measure that yet.

Over the years, the curriculum has aligned itself to the architecture. This, of course, was always the plan, but a curriculum is nothing without the people to impart it. So it is perhaps truer to say that the curriculum has been made flesh - through the building, and its inhabitants.

Subjects no longer exist. They have been replaced with a workshop of the imagination. Inside, the Aurion Academy is an incubator for the offices of the future. Indeed, though there are no classes, these students, now referred to as Makers, made me think of little else but class. In the context of the Academy however, this concept is made benign. No labour is ever factored into the production of the children's dreams except the work of imagining, planning, organising and evaluating. Makers may master one or other of these skills and look forward to a managerial career. Those who master all four are set to become future captains of industry.

The ethos of Aurion Academy is to "Make A Better Future". In the absence of a clear definition of better - a deliberate omission - the Makers' dreams are given free rein. This absolute relativism, which might cause conflict anywhere else, here causes none, for like all children, the Makers' dreams are simple: to have everything in exchange for little more than the boldness and daring to ask for it. The result is a harmonious collaboration on a host of projects which all share a common goal: the mechanisation of dream production.

I witnessed one of these, an ongoing project started long ago by a Maker, and which has continued to capture imaginations year on year. They are engaged in the production of mechanised teachers. With excitement, one Guide informed me that great strides had been made of late.

Each day ends with a ritual - an assembly held in the building's clerestory. The Makers sit facing the windows of the West façade. From here they have a privileged view, over the city wall and its gate, to the Sun setting on their corner of the Empire. Previously, Guides addressed them with speeches and presentations about subjects they felt to be of importance. In time, this aspect of the ritual was abandoned, for nothing could eclipse the powerful meaning of that symbol.

Below them, the bustle can be heard of fresh deliveries of materials arriving for the next day's making. Mechanised carts arrive emblazoned with the names and symbols of the Academy's merchant sponsors.

The conditions of production of these materials is beyond question, and whether and how the sponsors will ever profit from their investment are moot points.

Thursday, 20 July 2017

Saying Goodbye

I never got to say it.

It was three Christmases ago. I was cooking the family Christmas meal. I love cooking. I'd spent two days on the prep. It was going to be a gourmet affair for the whole family. As it turned out, I cocked up the starter, a beer soup that tasted just awful. The amuse-bouches were nice. The sorbet, at least, cleaned the beer soup off everyone's palates. I got the main course on the table, but the show-stopper pudding stayed in the fridge, a sad homage to the deconstructed fancies of Masterchef. I didn't eat. I excused myself and went to bed.

Part of me never woke up, though it took me a long time to realise it.

The rest of that holiday is a blur. I went back to school in January, having recovered enough from the virus to convince myself I could motor on. I did, right up until February half term.

I was teaching a pretty full timetable. I had responsibilities on top of that. Determined to bring about better communication, better assessment and lower workload for everyone, I was in charge of deploying Google Apps for Education. My line manager, an Assistant Headteacher, had left and on top of what I was doing, I was asked to fill his role too - parental engagement. No promotion. No pay rise. No support. No extra PPA. No review of my current responsibilities. I could have turned it down, I suppose, but the promotion was hinted at as a deferred possibility, and I wanted nothing more at that time than a seat at the decision-making table. I wanted to change things. I knew I could change things.

The school had just come out of Special Measures after years in the category, dragged out by every unsustainable, damaging initiative you could imagine. Every single one. I reckon I've been seen by more Ofsted inspectors, LEA advisors, Mocksted-peddling consultants and every other type of external observer than most teachers will see in their entire careers, and I never let the side down. I watched colleagues leave and get pushed out. I stayed. I threw everything I had at it, and all that ever happened was that more was thrown back at me.

By the time the virus came along, there was nothing left of me to fight it.

Between that Christmas and February, I started losing weight. I still attended every after-school parent event, as was required of me. I still ran the parent forum that SLT never attended or responded to. I still followed up, as was asked of me by the head, every single parent complaint and produced half-termly reports for governors on my work. And I rolled out Sims Learning Gateway, too, so that every parent would have access to their children's data and reports, and so that the school could save the considerable work and expense of printing them out.

I still ran Google Apps for Schools.

Oh. And I still taught. Not one. Not two. Three subjects. There were gaps in the staffing you see. And I'm a bit musical. And I'm a bit French. And that's all you really need at Key Stage 3, right? Someone to stand in front of the class who knows more than them and who can write reports.

School finished at 15.30 on the Friday and I was in the doctor's office by 17.00. I had pain in my gut and I was exhausted. I was diagnosed with a stomach ulcer and sent home with Omeprazole. I went to sleep.

I don't really sleep much. Six hours a night has been the average my whole adult life. For the next few months, I was sleeping 14 hours a night, and I needed a nap to get through the day. It was a sleep that provided no rest. I woke up from it as tired as I'd fallen into it. I went back to the doctor and he signed me off. A fortnight. Then another. Then another.

I had a whole barrage of blood tests. My white blood cell count was critically low. I was, apparently, suffering sepsis. There must have been drugs. I can't remember. There were supplements. All sorts. The energy required to digest food was more than my body could handle. Eating meant sleeping. I developed a tremor. I couldn't walk down stairs without holding on because my knees shook from the effort. I couldn't play my guitar, which broke my heart. I still can't play it because, I think, my heart is still broken. I got a new diagnosis: post-viral fatigue syndrome, or post-viral ME.

During that whole time, the school called me once.

"Hi JL. We've just had the call from Ofsted. I'm just calling to find out if there's any chance of you being back tomorrow."

The school went back into Special Measures.

And I missed it. Oh how I missed my work, my students. My sense of purpose.

My wife, I don't mind telling you, saved me. She is my hero. As I write this, she's still out there doing it. She works in education too. The greatest challenge for me these past couple of years has been to see the job's impact from the outside; to watch it try to do to her what it did to me; to support her the way she supported me; to struggle daily to find the balance between encouraging the right amount of resilience or of resistance; to be at home feeling like the one you love loves her job more than her family; knowing this to be untrue; resenting yourself for feeling it; resenting the toll it takes, the fact that even when she's home, she isn't really - the best part of her is still at work. Just like I was.

She has resigned. She has a wonderful new job to go to. All this week, she has been saying goodbye and it must be gut-wrenching for her. She loves those kids, and her colleagues, and they love her back.

But she is getting to say goodbye.

I went back on a phased return. The occupational therapist's report was ignored (administrative cock-up) and I was put straight back into the classroom. It was awful. I was awful. I had no support. I felt like I was shunned for having dared to be ill. I was a stone and a half lighter, and I'm not a big guy to start with. I struggled on until the summer holidays. I was given a timetable on the final day. Next year, I would be teaching English and Citizenship instead of Music and French, neither of which I had ever taught. Surprise! Have a great summer.

I went home in tears. I had an appalling summer. My precarious health caved in a second time.

Anti-depressants were little use, but they reassured people around me that I was doing something. CBT was excellent. It gave me a language to conceptualise the anxiety attacks I was suffering, and to manage them. It didn't stop them.

I had another term of absence, until my departure was mutually agreed.

Since then, I've only worked supply and part-time contracts. Initially, I felt totally, and stupidly, emasculated. How utterly disrespectful to my wife that feeling was -  to the decade she'd supported my career aspirations at the cost of her own. I got over myself pretty quickly.

Physically, I'm a weaker person for my experience. The weight and muscle loss have caused me to suffer pain in my cervical spine, which is with me for life now. At some point, a permanent tinnitus kicked in. If that doesn't sound like much, consider never being able to enjoy a silence, and having to work harder to keep your cognitive load under control in every noisy environment. A classroom, say, or any dinner table where more than one conversation is going on at the same time. I'm still prone to an anxiety response in stressful situations.

Mentally though, I am stronger than I've ever been. I've learned the power of no, and I'm not letting go. Unfortunately, that's not always helpful when working in schools (an understatement). By the same token, I have a little less ego getting in the way. I never valued myself much by how hard I worked, how much I earned, or how important my job title sounded, but I don't break myself anymore trying to sustain a system that can't sustain itself, and I advise all those who'll listen not to either.

I focus on the students in front of me, on the curriculum to be taught, on keeping expectations high. Ironically, I can only do this because expectations of me are low. Anything more than a body in the room who'll take a register is a bonus, it seems, for some schools I've worked in as a supply. But even for those who really look after supply teachers, accountability is low, and where that is the case, I stay as long as possible. Every placement where my curriculum needs are met and my pastoral abilities empowered, I literally feel my teaching improve.

What does that say about our education system, at least as I'm encountering it?

As I've picked myself up from the floor, I've taken ownership of my own CPD. I go to conferences and I read, read, read and I write. I listen and I ask questions. I interact with people across the education system who constantly challenge me to think better, to be better. And I have the time to do all that because I don't work for a school that won't let me, that has other priorities for me.

But there's one thing missing. Nearly three years ago, I didn't get to say goodbye to students I'd taught and colleagues I'd taught with for years, and I still carry that with me. Since then, I've met many young people and teachers, some of whom I've had opportunity to say goodbye to, but few of whom I'd developed a true, long-term, pastoral or collaborative rapport with. If you read this and you have those things, I dare say you don't take them for granted. I dare say your students and colleagues don't either. Though I would venture a guess that more than a couple of things this year have gotten in the way of you making the most of it.

In my experience, a focus on curriculum, self-directed CPD, and moderate accountability don't just create the conditions for better pastoral care for our students - they are in themselves better pastoral care for our teachers.

Saying goodbye is always a proud moment, tinged with more than a little sadness. It is a privilege. Perhaps an education system that allows teachers that privilege is one that would see fewer teachers choose to say goodbye to the classroom instead.

Tuesday, 18 July 2017

Invisible Academies (Chapter 3)

The Archē Academy

I arrived at the Archē Academy early. Bathed from the East in the only sunlight ever to reach its walls and windows, it glowed an iridescent orange. As I awaited the hour of my appointment, I spoke to people streaming through the city's East Gate to their places of work. Among those who live in the Academy's vicinity, I learned, the true colour of the building is the source of some controversy. Despite deep division in that regard, all accept as fact - and not without some pride - that it was the first official building of the White City. Eschewing palaces and ministries, the Emperor's first act was to create a school (this school, their school) to forever safeguard knowledge and the past, which to them are synonymous.

As to its colour, there are proponents for every hue in the palette of the rising Sun, from ceremonious purple to sacrificial red. Each is happy to state the colour of the building as they see it in the here and now, to accept that it may be a different colour every day, every minute, or every time they happen to walk past it. The subjectivity of these existentialists is trusted by no one, least of all themselves, and two main factions have coalesced on the subject: on one hand, those who argue that the building can only be white, though it is never seen to be, and on the other, those for whom black is a certainty assured by the senses.

To the former Cartesians, appearances are not to be trusted and it stands to reason that the Emperor could only have inaugurated the White City with a white building. Notwithstanding this logic, supported by the unquestioned infallibility of the Emperor, they further argue that only the reflective achroma of white can honour the past, by protecting it from the blanching rays of each new day. To their empiricist disputants, history gives scant evidence regarding whether the naming of the city predates the erection of the building or vice versa; even if the archive were complete, the Emperor's logic cannot be inferred from the logic of ordinary minds; the achromatic purity of black is equal to that of white; and the only way to honour the past is to absorb the light of the new day, that its rays may be filtered by prior knowledge and not let loose upon the world, refracted and untamed.

To neither faction is it of any interest that proof has repeatedly been presented that the building is now grey.

The Emperor has seen fit to ensure that each Academy serves a locale, a community, and so the complainants on either side are, in their vast majority, students and alumni of the Archē Academy. It was thus clear to me as I left off speaking to passers-by that, more than bricks and mortar of this or that colour, the Archē Academy (and perhaps the whole Academy edifice) is built of this polemic. This thought was interrupted as I noticed a student moving in the opposite direction to the otherwise well-ordered crowd. I asked after her as I waited at the reception desk, and was informed she had come unequipped. She would return tomorrow.

Inside, the impermeability of the walls and the staining of the windows have ensured that the curriculum is incontestably empiricist. Though it was already obvious to me that the Academy is not premised upon a model of indoctrination (at least not a successful one), I was intrigued to see if the diversity of opinion in the general population was reflected in the school. What I found was that personal opinion has little place there. While a curriculum built upon experience appears to lend itself to individual interpretation, and a curriculum delivered chronologically must continuously highlight the erroneous nature of what has been held in each successive era as infallible knowledge, there are a number of criteria to discourage relativism. These criteria form the basis of strict hierarchies - of people, of subjects, indeed of the senses themselves.

At the bottom of these hierarchies are the students (not in order of age, but of proven maturity), the arts (not for lack of value, but because their true appreciation relies most heavily on the acquisition of prior knowledge and experience) and taste and smell (which seem to be perceived as wholly unacademic, though use of the other senses is also strictly proscribed). At the top of the hierarchies are the Emperor (or, to be precise, his subtle and less subtle instruments of measurement), the sciences (to which here belongs the study of language), and sight (for the direction of one's eyes is understood as the direction of one's attention). The Archē Academy is the first in the Empire, not just historically, but academically, and all its many eyes are fixed upon maintaining that status, be the minds behind them conscious of this or not.

The school's hierarchies and reverence for the past go hand in hand. They sustain and nourish each other, and are supported by rituals I found worthy of note. Speech is limited in quantity and quality, because a singular outburst might loose something new upon the accepted canon. As a result, no sentence is ever complete - completeness itself can only be conferred by the Imperial Authority of the Guardian of the Archive Vault, whose visits are separated by millennia. A student's sentence, already heavily shaped by prior teaching, will, no sooner pronounced, be dissected, pulled apart, have clauses amputated and others inserted, punctuation moved, changed or removed and only be transcribed into a book when it matches the sentence on the teacher's lesson script and can be transcribed into all books. The lesson script itself is not written by the teacher but by his or her superior, and is also subject to revision according to changes in the examination specifications, in direct correlation with imponderable movements in examination authorities, who in turn respond to the fathomless logic of the Emperor - a conduit for which I assume you are, dearest Secretary. In this way, every new event in history has the potential to re-write the entirety of the curriculum. Despite inscrutable fluctuations over aeons, it is no wonder that the Archē Academy has maintained its place at the Empire's apex, for a disciplined hierarchy is the most responsive system to changing circumstance.

As with speech, movement too is restricted in number and type. It is an oft-repeated cautionary tale in the Academy that the wave of a student's hand once blew chaos into the pages of the archive itself. For this reason, any potential for action with uncertain outcomes is dealt with in advance through policy and enforcement, habituation and exclusion. Students walk from class to class in single files along the left-hand wall, with hands behind their backs. Some see their maturity rewarded with an elevated status to monitor adherence to this code. Teachers walk with their hands by their sides. The most venerable of them walk backwards, at once showing the ideal direction of travel for the academic mind, and the profound abilities conferred upon them by detailed and encyclopedic knowledge of the past.

What of the student who hadn't brought a pen that morning, whose path I crossed as I entered? I never saw her again, but she has crossed my mind many times in the intervening month. I wonder whether she gave her exclusion any thought at all, and if she did, whether she had any power to change the circumstance in time for the next day. I imagine her across the road, contemplating the colour of the Archē Academy. Will that experience come to shape which faction she joins in the great polemic? And, if so, is it possible that the Emperor willed it thus? Having created the White City, the dark vault of the age-old empire and the grey Academy, is it conceivable that he abhorred the cold logic of this achromatic scale enough to create the conditions for dangerous little sparks to flit briefly into existence?

I suspect the archive is incomplete on the matter.

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.