Teacher Toby Marshall reflects on a recent Education Forum discussion…

Last month I took great pleasure in chairing the Academy of Ideas Education Forum.

The online discussion followed a year of significant disruption to the normal routines of education. Contact with students had been maintained during lockdown, but in the absence of the rich communication afforded by in-person teaching, many educators, including myself, were more than little concerned as to what we might encounter as schools and colleges started to reopen.  

On the night we had three speakers with differing perspectives. Speaking first was Molly Kingsley, co-founder of UsForThem, a campaign group which has ensured that the needs of students have been at the forefront of discussions over the societal and education impact of lockdown. Molly was then followed by Sarah Standish, a school counsellor of many years experience. Sarah has been working at the sharp end of the student experience during this period. Finally, a more theoretically inclined viewpoint was provided by Dr. Ken McLaughlin, Senior Lecturer in Social Work at Manchester Metropolitan University.

The introductions and discussion explored many different aspects of the experience of lockdown, but two particularly important themes emerged. One was the danger of overstating the permanent psychological consequences of lockdown, and in doing so impeding a much needed return to normality. This point was balanced somewhat by a recognition of the need to keep an eye on students with preexisting support needs. It was felt that their experience of lockdown would have exacerbated existing problems.

Another second thread, initiated from the floor, suggested those who are critical of lockdown policy have too often framed the case for personal freedom in terms of mental health. In doing so, it was argued, they have been overly defensive.

I felt that there was a great deal to commend this point. Young people, and especially teenagers, do indeed need spaces in which feely associate and interact, places in which to get things wrong, and to get things right. The consequences of being denied these simple freedoms are unclear, and perhaps secondary. Freedom to associate and interact, away from the control of adults, brings them a great deal of pleasure, and no doubt many tears, but is the basis on which they lead a full life. The young have sacrificed a great deal and in my view far too much during lockdown.

A recording of the discussion can be found below. I hope you enjoy watching it as much as I enjoyed chairing it.

Teaching unions have abandoned one of their members to the fundamentalist mob, argues Gareth Sturdy in Spiked…

…This spineless conspiracy of silence on the part of the unions amounts to tacit support of the protesters’ outrageous demands, and also to a betrayal of the trade-union tradition of standing up for the liberty of the common worker against the forces of conservatism.

This silence is in marked contrast to the strident, near-constant noise made by the unions in recent months, demanding that schools are kept shut during the pandemic. They even had the cheek, during the Black Lives Matter protests last summer, to insist publicly that ‘silence is violence’. Not when it comes to teachers’ jobs, it seems…

Read the full article on Spiked.

After decades of neglect, educators and policymakers are belatedly realising just how important – and costly – the teaching of practical knowledge actually is, argues Gareth Sturdy in the Education Forum’s latest Teach Secondary column…

When I trained to be a physics teacher in the mid-1990s I never imagined that 25 years later I’d be working from a makeshift classroom at the back of a hair salon, surrounded by sinks and blow-dryers.

I’ve spent the last couple of years out of schools, mainly teaching hairdressing apprentices basic numeracy and literacy for Functional Skills qualifications in a work-based learning setting. It’s been a privilege, allowing me to meet many fantastic people who, despite struggling with the basics of primary-level learning, possess the acumen and skills needed to run very successful, fast-paced businesses.

And yet, I so often hear these people describe themselves as ‘failures’ at school. When I’ve asked my apprentices what they mean by this, they invariably give an answer along the lines of, “I wasn’t academic. So I’d sometimes get into trouble. I was just good with my hands. So I didn’t leave with many qualifications.” These conversations have made a deep impression on me, given my classroom background, and I soon came to realise that such narratives contained several PhDs’ worth of research questions.

How can someone spend over a decade in formal education, yet leave barely able to read or multiply? What do we actually mean by the word ‘academic’? Are teachers and students even talking about the same thing? Above all, to what extent is practical knowledge – that ‘being good with one’s hands’ – different from abstract, conceptual and propositional knowledge? Is there enough room for this approach to making sense of the world within the field of academic knowledge?

Read the full article on TeachWire, or watch the Education Forum debate that inspired it below…

A perfect storm of competing pressures threatens to shortcut critical thinking about curriculum, writes Alka Sehgal Cuthbert in Schools Week…

For some, Ofsted’s emphasis on a knowledge-rich curriculum for all students has represented a welcome change from filling in content to fit schemas of generic skills. For many, and especially for leaders tasked with previously unimaginable levels of monitoring, predicting and recording, it has been understandably bewildering.

Amid this upheaval in school expectations and practices, schools have now been tasked with a new social justice mission, and the effect is especially pronounced in subjects like English literature, whose purpose and content are too broad and, as a result, hotly debated.

English teachers are increasingly expected to use their reading lists to promote active anti-racism. That pressure finds its source in a political outlook that shifts the terms of the debate from its usual dichotomy – wavering between the poles of understanding/expression and rule-bound linguistics/literary techniques – to put its entire focus on representation.

But, while the rhetoric is persuasive, the concept of representation has a long and contested history. At its worst, the idea is used to portray readers as blank slates rather than imaginatively active participants. It is used to justify control over what they are given access to, and how…

Read the whole article on Schools Week.

Alka Sehgal Cuthbert argues that schools should pause, think and discuss before implementing new anti-racist policies

No doubt since the events of last summer, schools, or at least some heads and senior leadership teams, have felt a new urgency to show that their school is, in the words of one London school’s freshly penned anti-racist policy, a ‘consciously anti-racist school’. Our current state of public discourse does not really encourage us to think before we leap into some plan of action that we believe to be a no brainer – who could be against such a thing unless they were either racist themselves, or so tradition-bound that they are on the point of total social irrelevance? The crucial point for schools, or any educational institution, is that prior to endorsing and implementing an anti-racist policy, there should be the widest, most open discussion among all adults concerned, with the aim of creating the widest possible consensus. This means people need to hear the range of views and understandings available, and not only the one that currently dominates our media landscape. The point is not that the existence of racism, or need for anti-racism, has to be proven. No teacher I know is denying the existence of inequalities or personal prejudice. But today more than ever, meanings of political terms such as ‘systematic racism’ and ‘white privilege’ are contestable. Yet in some schools, these and other neologisms are being endorsed as incontrovertible facts. Teachers are being asked to accept a particular belief system as if it were the only way of understanding what both racism and anti-racism means.

To assume a consensus where none exists makes it hard for individual teachers who may disagree with some of the beliefs or assumptions involved to raise questions. Or if they have the courage to have that meeting, or send that email where they raise their doubts, they are met with a curt acknowledgement followed by stony silence. Objections are seen as private interpersonal disagreements rather than symptomatic of profoundly differing political values and therefore requiring public scrutiny. In times of socio-political stability, and a strong consensual culture, schools may have less need to pay such careful attention to political values, or to make the effort to provide conditions of good faith discussion. But today’s political and cultural contexts are very different, and such a consensus cannot be assumed.

We definitely do need to think more deeply, and be prepared to question everything – the existence or prevalence of ‘woke mobs’ as well as ‘white privilege’. We need to do this as citizens in general, and even more so as teachers or those working in educational institutions. And if the monitoring, predicting and recording that are a feature of contemporary school life leave staff with little time or energy, then maybe it’s those tasks that need to be trimmed or pruned to make room for proper discussions about questions that cut to the heart of what education should be, what it is, and where it might be heading.

What, for example, are we to make of an anti-racist policy that contains the now ubiquitous phrase ‘respect for diversity’ yet, a few sentences along, declares that it ‘is committed to identifying and removing discriminatory practices and any form of racism or racist behaviour’? Clearly there are limits to the kind of diversity the school is prepared to respect. This is fine, and I am not arguing for racism to be respected. But even apart from the fact that there is more than one intellectually respectable definition of racism, ‘identifying and removing’ does not sit well with the older aim of education which is to argue with, and persuade, and only in the last resort, discipline. It’s worth remembering Wittgenstein’s words, ‘At the end of reasons comes persuasion’.

A school’s policy on something which is important and affects the institutional norms in which teacher’s daily work in undertaken should have a semblance of logical consistency. Yet the following contradictory key policy statements at one school indicate this is not necessarily the case. Consider the following statements from one school’s policy:

            ‘To develop pupils’ self-confidence and independence so that they are well equipped to play an active role in society’

           ‘…if the behaviour is treated in isolation without taking into consideration the issues and effects of racism, this can be described as institutional racism.’

The first aim does have a large consensus – that’s why it seems obvious to the point of being a platitude.  The second aim effectively negates the principle of independence, certainly in relation to independence of thought. It is effectively saying that the only contextual features permissible when judging a particular act are those of ‘the issues and effects of racism’. Furthermore, it implies that to do otherwise – consider other non-race related circumstances of the pupil/s involved – would be evidence of institutional racism. Such a view does not have a similar level of consensus. This anti-racist policy, intentionally or not, limits the space for teachers to exercise their own professional judgment.

A similar prohibition of individual judgment is extended to pupils themselves when the policy states:

            ‘Pupils should never just be a ‘bystander’; a witness who sees or knows about racist behaviour to someone else and does nothing, supports the behaviour’

And this instruction is facilitated by providing ‘confidence boxes’ for anonymous reporting. The effect is to encourage conformity to an external rule rather than helping pupils to develop their own independent thought and judgement. Virtuous dispositions including independence of thinking, compassion, tolerance and perseverance are not things best taught propositionally; they need to be encouraged by adults who exemplify them in their words and acts. If curiosity, imagination, independent thought and judgment remain rhetorical, while the practical norms emphasise delegation of thought and judgement to external rule derived from self-appointed race or diversity experts, then the result is likely to engender conformism rather than education. Schools need rules, but which rules and to what ends are things that need the fullest, deepest thinking and discussion among those who are called upon to enforce them.

Alka Sehgal Cuthbert is an educator, researcher, writer and member of the Academy of Ideas Education Forum. She is co-editor of What Should Schools Teach? Disciplines, Subjects and the Pursuit of Truth and a founding signatory of the Don’t Divide Us campaign.

Education forum organiser Harley Richardson describes the unusual role that education played in medieval justice…

One testament to the power of education is that many people credit it with having ‘saved their life’. But whether that’s because knowledge and learning opened up a path to a rewarding career or because it helped someone escape difficult personal circumstances, ‘education saved my life’ is usually meant metaphorically. In medieval England, however, it was literal. Having an education – or at least being able to pretend you had one – really could save your life…

Read the full post on Learning Through the Ages.