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The Education World is full of Dicks

25 June 2013

On March 6th 2006, I was told that I have cancer. I consider myself very lucky for this to have happened to me. I know that might sound a little odd to some, but I am genuinely grateful that it happened. You see, life suddenly becomes short. And suddenly all the trivial nonsense dissipates into nothingness. You gain clarity. You understand what is important in life. You become, well, more alive.

And you reflect.

As I look back on my career in schools, I am proud of what I achieved and hand-on-heart believe that I acted out of what I saw as the best interest of my students. However, I cringe at the way that I behaved at times. There were times in my career when I was a dick. It was never my intention to be, and I hope the moments were few, but it is only with growing and age and life and experience and failures and successes that any of us can evolve in to better individuals. So, yes, there were times when I was a dick. When I was lacking in empathy or was too full of self-belief, when I was cocky or when I was ignorant.

For whatever reasons, I rose quickly through the ranks of roles and responsibilities in schools and found myself being promoted time and again.

There are two sides to how I feel about this. Firstly, the only real goal in my professional life has always been to contribute towards improving the lives of the young people in our schools. So through promotion, the net of influence that I could throw widened considerably and I was able to give something in some small way to more and more children. This is not an easy task by any stretch of the imagination – the further from the individual child you get, the greater the interference from structures, systems, bureaucracy and the practicalities of day to day life. You might, with the best of intentions, decide upon a new approach in school that you believe will impact for the better on every child, but by the time that approach has been handed down, interpreted or ignored, the impact could be minimal or non-existent. But still, you persevere nonetheless. It would be an interesting study to measure how much each new initiative from central government actually impacted at the individual child level. Take the National Strategies, for example: a small group of bureaucrats and consultants gathered at Sanctuary Buildings to plot an approach that every teacher would follow, ministers made announcements, and then Crapita (and CFBT before them) sent a small team of advisors into the regions to brief specially funded LA consultants. In turn, they briefed teachers. But, as we all know, there was little resemblance to the original diktat by the time it reached the teaching population. LA consultants would listen politely to the advisors, completely ignore what they had been told and then go off and try to talk to their teachers about good teaching. I recall sitting on a table of 7 or 8 regional advisors in a room of around 50 others, all listening to the National Strategies lead for mathematics wittering on with all the insight and empathy of someone who had long since forgotten what it was actually like at the chalkface. Mumbles of 'bullshit' and 'yeah, right' were plentiful. As an 'observer', I asked the folk around my table what they were going to do with the new instructions they had received, to which the general response was 'the same as always, ignore it'.

The second side how I feel about being further and further up the ladder is one of deep sadness. Through promotion, and all that it brings with it in terms of workload and commitments, one is inevitably removed more and more from actually teaching. To drive to work each day knowing that all that you once loved about your job is now in the past is a melancholy situation indeed. But what if you never step up to the mark? This has always been my niggling conundrum. What if only those people desperate to get away from the classroom (as many of the Capita team were) take the decision to work their way up the ladder? Then we would all be doomed. So I have had to balance my emotions each and every time that I took on a new role. School management teams, local authorities, government education agencies and departments need to be filled with people who are passionate about making a difference, who are steeped in what it means to be a teacher, who understand the emotions of standing in front of a classroom full of children day in, day out.

Let me make this perfectly clear, I am not one of those people who think that you must have been a teacher to be allowed to talk about teaching and education. Indeed, some of my senior staff had never taught, yet were incredibly insightful about teaching and learning.

But, in the same way that I think politicians really should have had a real job (preferably a few real jobs) before becoming an MP, I believe that to set the direction of education does require an in depth knowledge of its workings.

This is not something that you can achieve in a couple or years, nor is it something you can achieve by working only in one institution. It takes time and a very broad range of differing experiences to give one a holistic view of how the system actually works (or doesn't).

I worry, then, that a great deal of the organisations, quangos, bodies, unions and the like, that shout so loudly about their particular burning issue they influence the direction of policy, don't actually have a clue what they are talking about. It seems to be an increasingly frequent occasion that I find myself talking – either face to face or via social media – with people in positions of authority who have either never stepped foot in a classroom or have taught in just one school. Who are... well, using the term I used about my arrogant young self, dicks.

There is, of course, something quite charmingly ironic that I can now see in these people what others must have seen in me. A cocksure, young intellect who quoted research and thought the answers were straightforward.

Now, I cringe as I hear of twenty-somethings with one or two years classroom experience giving speeches at conferences or attacking colleagues on Twitter. Kids who know fuck all, being put in charge of Free Schools. And the vacuous types who have no experience beyond an Oxford student life, pontificating and policy making.

Of course, the delight about this situation is, just as I did, they can simply brush me away as a grumpy old man. But guess what, here's a secret: I'm not. Indeed, getting older seems to me to be the most enjoyable thing in life. I'm terrifically happy. And have survived a career in education without a single chip on my shoulder.

I really rather love the fact that these arrogant know-it-alls believe they are the masters of some brave new world. I hope some of them are and will be.

But I also hope that catastrophic life events, whether joyous or tragic, bring the gift of empathy and perspective to some of them.

I hope that those who do, eventually, take the decisions that impact on all of our children do so from a point of view of experience and not as though they have simply read it in a book.