I had taught in private schools for years, but I hesitated before entering the classroom to teach my first lesson in the state sector. I stopped a colleague in the corridor and asked him for advice. Should I expect the children to fall silent and stand behind their desks when I walked in? Thinking I was joking, he laughed. A few seconds later, I realized why.
I had been used to teaching in places where authority was sometimes challenged but always acknowledged; I had entered a world where it had to be fought for, and defended if won. No, the children did not stand up—or shut up, or even look up when I entered the room. Not until I had made a noise as loud as a pistol shot by banging a book on my desk did they even notice I was there. It was a long, hard struggle to win their respect, and I had to do it from a standing start. In English inner-city schools like that, teachers are not able to exercise authority by virtue of their office. They stand or fall—or, in most cases, stumble along—according to their personal ability alone.
I quickly discovered how little authority is enjoyed by the contemporary English state schoolteacher. On my second day, a 14-year-old girl was reading a glamour magazine under her desk during my class. I told her to put it away; she pretended to do so, but, when I looked a moment later, she was reading it again. So I walked up to her desk, picked up the magazine, opened the window behind her, and threw it out. It described a perfect parabola over the staff car park and landed on the playing field beyond.
The class fell silent before drawing one common and audible breath. I thought it expressed shock at her defiance, but they were breathing in to shout their outrage at what I had done.
“You can’t do that! It’s her private stuff!”
“You’ve no right to touch her things!”
“I’m gonna tell my mum about this!”
“You’ll get done for this, sir!”
And “done” I was. A formal complaint was made to the head teacher, who called me in to tell me that I had no right to touch a child’s property. The moment he said it, I knew that, in the culture that I had entered, authority would only ever be exercised against itself.
It is not hard to trace the origins of this rights-without-responsibilities absurdity: It dates from the libertarianism of the 1960’s, which lived on in English schools for decades. The kids that were first poisoned by it are now grandparents. They passed on their disrespect of teachers to their children. The children they parented learned to disrespect everyone, including their parents.
Their rights, though, must be respected absolutely; and, if those rights conflict with those claimed by others, too bad. Duties are what other people owe to them. I did not enter into a discussion with the girl with the glamour mag; if I had, however, I now know how it would have gone. If I had said that I had the right to expect and enforce obedience, she would have said, “So what? You had no right to take my stuff.”
Schools filled with children that think and act like this are uncomfortable places in which to teach. Many children would pay no attention at all to instructions addressed to the group in general; they would wait until I had finished explaining what to do and then demand to be told individually. It was, they believed, their right. Many of them came to school with nothing to write with; their attitude was that, if I wanted them to write anything, it was my duty to provide them with a pen. The custom was to supply pencils; at the end of the lesson, they were not taken to the next class but cast on the floor, frequently after being broken in two.
After a while, the kids behaved better for me; I won their trust because, despite their awfulness, I cared. I established a working relationship with almost all of them and even, perhaps, won their respect. But whatever respect they had for me was for me as an individual; I didn’t play the “Because I am a teacher” card because it wasn’t in the deck. I began to enjoy the challenge of liking them into submission. They were not used to it, but eventually it worked.
My career came to an end when the school was condemned as “failing” after a government inspection. I refused to accept the regime that was subsequently imposed upon the staff. The school was put into “special measures,” a euphemism that might have been coined in 1930’s Germany. It means punishing the staff by controlling their every act. Teachers were made to submit for approval a lesson plan for every lesson taught, broken down into five-minute sections. After delivering it, they were required to write up a full report. I wouldn’t do it on any number of principles; I walked out of teaching, and that was that.
That was a failing school if ever there was one, and something most certainly had to be done. Unfortunately, the government’s response to schools that are capsized by hordes of unbiddable children has not been to restore authority, which commands respect; it has been to employ authoritarianism, which inspires fear. And it isn’t the children who are fearful. The fear is felt by frontline teachers, who are held to account if they cannot produce the targeted statistical outcome from their students. They are forced to behave like double-glazing salesmen, whose jobs depend on selling a minimum number of units per month. The salesman cannot afford to worry about what his customers want or need: His survival depends on persuading them to buy what he must sell. The teacher cannot afford to weigh up the needs of individual pupils: He keeps his job by making the required percentage of them achieve a grade C pass, because that is what the government demands. The borderline C/D pupils get all the attention; the E’s that might get D’s get none at all.
Now that teachers are paid according to their performance, that performance has to be measured against measurable targets. Encouraging respect for others—or respect for anything—does not produce a number that can be put in a box on a spreadsheet; coaching children to leap through graded examination hoops does. Successful teachers do not engage with the needs of their children; they turn their backs on them so that they can concentrate on satisfying the demands of their own managers.
Watching teachers watch their backs like this does not inspire children to respect authority. But then, contemporary English education isn’t really about children at all; it is about producing statistics that justify government policies. The teacher’s primary purpose is to make the government look good. As in every other aspect of life in Blair’s New Britain, it is what things look like that counts.
What looks bad is a dehumanized educational process in which the teacher-pupil relationship has been destroyed. The countable result of that is that teachers quit. The government’s response is not to admit that schools are now soulless certificate mills but to generate a publicity stunt that suggests that they are not. We now have an annual televised “Oscars-style” award ceremony with categories such as “Teacher of the Year,” and . . . well, to be honest, I don’t know what the other categories are, because I have never watched it. I don’t know anyone who has. My wife is still a serving teacher and says that she has never heard anyone mention the show at school or anywhere else. I can tell you, though, that this year’s overall winner was a man. I think. There was a photograph in all the papers, but I didn’t really look at it. What matters, though, is that it was there, and a picture of a teacher celebrated as a personality is worth a thousand words—especially if those words include “performance indicator” or “target.”
We have not arrived at this embarrassingly trashy vulgarity by accident. When Tony Blair was first elected, he promised to make education his priority, and, after seven years, we can see the result. Blair has dealt with education in the same way that Henry VIII dealt with the Church. In each case, the central issue was the same: authority. The king would not countenance any power that challenged his will and took over the institution that dared to do so. Blair could not tolerate the idea that schools and universities could be looked upon as founts of independent wisdom, so he has made them all answerable to his government.
As with Henry, Blair’s arrogance has bred heresy. His de facto doctrine is that schools exist solely to prepare children for the world of work; the reward of education is a good salary. Man is fallen, so men fall for it. Cultural enrichment has been displaced by greed. The god of contemporary education is a false one, but its cult is attractive because the idol is covered in gold.
The whole educational world now kneels before it. The government’s ongoing campaign to recruit teachers focuses on their earning power. Newspaper advertisements use business-world shorthand: Run a school full of eager-eyed youngsters like the one in the picture, and you can earn “80k.” The crude little kappa says it all. Come on in, Mr. Senior Executive—oh, and goodbye, Mr. Chips. Good heavens! Are you still here?
Well, no, actually. Those advertisements keep running because teachers keep running away. Most new recruits do not stay more than four or five years. They cannot stand the pressures of performance management, which is execspeak for managing by bullying. Teachers now enjoy all the professional independence of the call-center operative. No wonder they burn out and bail out fast.
And yet the word professional is dropped into every other managerial sentence. Heads exhort wavering staff to adopt a “professional” approach and praise compliant colleagues for their “professionalism.” The usage is as dishonest as it is absurd. To use professional as a synonym for compliant is perverse: Professionals, by definition, are accepted by society as independent practitioners of expertise.
This, then, is the reason that respect for authority is no longer found in schools: Authority is not there to be respected; it is somewhere else. Practically, it is in the ministry of education; philosophically, it is where the money god lives: nowhere and everywhere. It is also in the wallets of those with two million pounds to spare, because, for that sum—less, if you haggle—you can now sponsor a new school, appoint the majority of its governors, determine its ethos, and create its curriculum. Having suffocated the existing school system under a pillow held down by bureaucrats, the government is setting up new schools called academies. There are plans for 200 to be up and running or in the pipeline by 2010, of which 60 will be in London. So far, 12 have opened, and a further 31 are in development.
It more interesting than uplifting to contemplate the sponsors that have put their money on the table to propagate their ethos. The chairman of a venture capitalist company has sponsored the London Academy in Barnet, which specializes in “business and IT.” A property company has stumped up for the Thamesmead Community College, with the more modest ambition of specializing in “business.” The West London Academy is sponsored by Alec Reed, founder and chairman of Reed Executive. His school specializes in “enterprise” and “sports.” Stockley Park Academy, which specializes in “science and technology,” is backed by a disparate bunch including a stockbroker, the computer giant Cisco, the British Airports Authority, and the games manufacturer Hasbro. What kind of ethos that combination might produce is anybody’s guess. Perhaps it is only fully expressed on sports day, at an all-school online game of Monopoly with extra squares for Heathrow, Stansted, and Gatwick.
The circle is complete: Schools exist to create moneymakers, so who better than moneymakers to create schools? Their choice of “specialisms” says it all. The education department keeps a running tally of planned academies, and you won’t find any of them focusing on classical languages or medieval literature. You don’t make money out of Middle English poetry, and making money is what education is now all about.
It is not only the new academies that specialize. Over 2000 ordinary English schools have already achieved “specialist” status and the funding that follows it. Governing bodies that cook up a scheme to commit themselves to the pursuit of a particular excellence and persuade a private sponsor to pay £50,000 into the school funds win a one-off government grant of £100,000 and an extra £123 per pupil over a four-year period. And funding is what all of this is really about. My own children went first to a school that specialized in technology, and then to a school that specialized in humanities. It was the same school. It got the grant twice.
In any case, the idea of filling the country with specialist secondary schools is simply stupid. There have long been schools for children blessed with a prodigious talent for acting, dance, or music; there are not many such institutions, because such gifts are exceptional. Making “specialist” schools the norm is a nonsense, but it is a nonsense to which the current government is committed.
The reason for its commitment is that the existence of specialist schools gives the impression that there is choice. The impression is false. If a child keen on computers wants to go to a school that specializes in computing, he can indeed do so—provided there is one nearby. Few people have more than one school within easy traveling distance. Only those who can afford to move their homes have a real choice—and the better the local school, the higher the price of the house.
This is what happens when moneymaking is the end and purpose of education: Schools become the servants of materialism. Education is no longer a gift to be shared but a commodity to be bought and sold. Schoolchildren are now consumers, and consumers are defined not by their responsibilities but by their rights. Respect for the traditional values of education has been thrown out as certainly as I once cast that girl’s magazine through the window. I now know my confidence was misplaced. The lesson taught in schools today is that the world is a marketplace, and, in a marketplace, the only authority worth respecting is cash.