In the topsy-turvy, highly politicised world of British education, there are a dizzying array of contradictory accusations. Today, it’s Michael Wilshaw’s assertion that schools ‘fail’ two-thirds of the brightest pupils, which hovers awkwardly over his organisation’s own assertion that two thirds of schools in the UK are good or outstanding.
Ah well, so it goes as Kurt Vonnegut once said.
The detail of the current round of contradictory unpleasantness coming from the DfE and Ofsted is less interesting than the underlying idea revealed in the exchange between Gove and Dianne Abbott during the GCSE debate.
“No-one needs academic rigour more than working-class children,” said Abbott, writing the next day in The Guardian. “I owe everything in life to my string of A Grades and O- and A-Level and my Cambridge degree.”
The important word in that sentence is ‘I’.
Politicians seem incapable of seeing beyond their own individual experiences at school. They regularly confuse what worked for them with what might work for thousands of young people from an entirely different generation. “It worked for me” appears to be the basis of policy and responses to policy and it’s just not good enough.
I once heard an Assistant Head turned leadership coach explain this phenomenon. “Whenever any adult goes into schools, they bring their school bag with them. And their school bag is full of shit.”
For politicians, the shit is usually good shit. Most of them will have been successful at school, and will have felt the halo glow of achievement. Parents who don’t turn up to parents evening, or who kick off when they do come into school, are also responding to their school experiences, which were probably poor. And it’s the same for the rest of us. We can only put our own experiences into their rightful historic place by either spending a lot of time in schools (like teachers do) or by recognising the tidal emotional pull of our own school days.
School is intense and time-specific. The five years or so we all spent as pupils at secondary school will have contained a lifetimes-worth of friendships, fallings out, stress, comedy, drama and occasionally, the kind of teaching you remember for ever. Schools are huge, complex, emotional machines with many different moving parts that exert a lasting effect.
It’s powerful stuff. Michael Gove, for example, had a wonderful time at school. I once read a piece in which his mother described a teacher giving up and just letting him lead class. Gove himself even wrote an open letter of apology to his French teacher, saying that he cringes when he thinks of his ‘clever-dick questions’ and ‘pathetic showing-off’. The precocious schoolboy lingers in Gove’s pronouncements, and he needs to be replaced with a wiser adult who can survey the landscape without always allowing himself to be psychologically pinged back to his own experience at school.
To paraphrase Carson McCullers, schools are a ‘dragnet for lost feeling’. Politicians, however, should be able to get beyond that.