Don’t Mourn – Organise

Rachel Jones, @rlj1981, is a teacher and e-learning coordinator. She writes:

When Labour won the election in 1997 I was studying for my A-levels, one of which was Politics. I was opinionated and passionate about what I believed in, and I remember feeling truly elated at the election result. I imagined us at the edge of a new era, with the world taking a more positive shape. Fast forward to the eve of the most recent election as I felt that same sense of optimism. After what felt like banging my head against a brick wall of misguided, and sometimes even absurd political reform, we would again have a chance to get things right.

Well, that goes to show me that I must live in a social media bubble where those I interact with are of a similar political persuasion. I could barely bring myself to talk about the election result for a few days. I was totally shocked, such was the level of naivety. This is my mantra now:

Don’t Mourn – Organise.

Those on the left of politics in the teaching profession have a lot to reflect on. How do we voice our opinions? How do we have them actually heard? What is it we even believe in anyway? Most importantly for me, how can we work towards a fairer society where children have the access to the types of education that will value them as individuals and help them to grow into the types of people that will do good in the world?

No one is as idealistic as to suggest that the social inequality that is endemic to our society is going to disappear. However, what I think many people will agree with, is that all children deserve a decent run at the one thing that can be transformational in the lives of those who are culturally and materially deprived. This one thing is education. Nothing is so powerful. Done right, it can bring hope to children whose daily existence is a grind of low expectations, poverty and lack of opportunities. Done wrong, education can damn an entire generation, demonise and disillusion teachers and create the kind of riffs in society that fuel the politics of fear.

I know what kind of education system I would like to see. One that trusts and listens to the professionals that are on the front line in classrooms. One that places value in curriculum change not solely based on a rose tinted view of the past. One that values children as having value, not just to the economy, but as members of a just society. One that, ultimately doesn’t just see education as a machine to train an elite to pass exams, but provides meaningful and life fulfilling life opportunities to all. I don’t want this education system to be on the never-never. I don’t want us just to spend the next five years angsting over Conservative reforms, I want us to be in a place to do something useful. Ask yourself, where can I do the most good, then do it.

5 Comments on “Don’t Mourn – Organise”

  1. terryloane says:

    Thank you, Rachel, for kick-starting our thinking after all the absurdity surrounding the general election.

    I completely agree with you that children should have “access to the types of education that will value them as individuals and help them to grow into the types of people that will do good in the world”, and that we should aspire to have an education system “that values children as having value, not just to the economy, but as members of a just society… [and that] provides meaningful and fulfilling life opportunities to all.”

    But we must not underestimate the scale of change that is required in order to achieve these aims. The way the current system of schooling, particularly secondary schooling, works is so diametrically opposed to valuing people within the context of a just, meaningful and fulfilling life, that we can surely only achieve your aims if we challenge and cast aside many of the current assumptions behind how schooling operates.

    Let’s be honest about two things. Firstly, secondary schooling currently amounts to little more than an ‘exam factory’ game (notwithstanding the efforts of committed teachers to provide something more). Students are browbeaten to work ever harder, to do ever better in ever more dysfunctional exams in order to make their school look ever better in performance measures. They are persuaded that this will give them a better chance of securing one of the ever-decreasing number of reasonably well paid jobs in an ever more unequal world, but this is, of course, a mendacious promise. The second thing we need to be honest about is that the Labour party has shown little real interest in challenging the ‘exam factory’ approach. To quote from their recent manifesto, “We will turn around underperforming schools by introducing new Directors of School Standards in every area to monitor the performance of local schools” – In other words “We will create better exam factories than the Tories.” And the repeated references to “driving up standards” in David Blunkett’s 2014 Labour Policy Review (about which I wrote here: reinforces Labour’s acceptance of the obsession with performance data.

    I believe the time is right for people to consider a radical reappraisal of secondary education. So let’s start with something simple: we should campaign for the end of GCSE and indeed all exams designed to be taken at a specific age. 16-year olds vary hugely in their interests, experience and aspirations so it is surely crazy to put them all through the same process just so that ‘performance’ can be compared across schools. If we must still have exams then the graded ‘when ready’ music exams are a far better model, as is the six-level CEFR for European languages. And of course technology has given us many new methods of recording/reporting learning that are far better than exams (as described in the final chapter of my recent book “Using Technology to Gather, Store and Report Evidence of Learning”).

    So my answer to your challenge, Rachel, to decide “where can I do the most good” is this: I intend to use the next five years to point out the deficiencies of the exam factory approach and to promote far better ways for young people to learn.

    • Great article Rachel, very timely and Terry, as a ‘product’ of our 21st Century Schooling I’m excited by your ideas on specific-age exams. These things confused me so much. They were such a drain of mine, my peers and my teachers energy and for what? Sure, I got all the A’s, but still haven’t figured out the point of loosing what we all lost for those pieces of paper.

      • terryloane says:

        What you say, Leah, both in your comment here and at makes me all the more convinced that the exam factory approach to schooling is nothing less than a form of child abuse. The final phrase of your message, “losing what we all lost for those pieces of paper,” speaks so eloquently of the pressure that schooling puts on young people to rob them of creative enjoyment of their adolescent years.

        What I find exciting, though, is that thanks to technology we now have all the tools we need to replace the gradgrindery of GCSEs and A-levels with much more human and engaging methods of recognising and reporting capability and achievement. Here are just a few examples (some of which are designed for mature learners but could easily be adapted for young people):
        # individually owned electronic portfolios providing direct evidence of what the young person has actually done/made
        # Bob Burgess’s HEAR (Higher Education Achievement Report)
        # Fred Garnett’s ‘Wikiquals’
        # ‘badges’ (e.g. Mozilla and Credly)
        # Trinity College London’s ‘Arts Award’

        [I haven’t provided links to these because this blog does not seem to like comments with multiple links, but all are easily found on the Web.]

        In her original post Rachel talks of the need for a system of education that “doesn’t just see education as a machine to train an elite to pass exams, but provides meaningful and life-fulfilling life opportunities to all”. To achieve this we surely need to have the imagination to think beyond the stultifying limitations of present-day secondary schooling. We need to embrace life-enhancing alternatives. It would be nice if we could find a few politicians who also felt this way.

  2. Paul Martin says:

    Well said, Rachel.

  3. Hugely enjoying your blog Terry (btw. Yes to WordPress, but I’ll email you separately on this). I’m so with you on technology making things possible like never before. The examples I’m following are mainly from outside education; music, marketing, travel, media etc. but we’re circling the same ideas > the keyboard democratises us, power is flowing away from the centre and we’d better decide what we’re going to do about this.

    Here is the thing (quote from today’s Seth Godin blog post): “When an organization moves forward, the fear of failure and the pain of change is worse than the problem they started with. Asserting it can be done is insufficient.” You and I have gotten ourselves out of needing a job, a job spec, accountability measures and a boss… we’re beyond that and I, for one, will do everything I can to never have to go back and, the crazy thing is, it’s working! I’m choosing my projects, the people I work with, the way I work. It’s insane. Here’s a whole world I never knew existed because everything about our school system is about getting the job. Even if lip service is paid to anything other than having a job teachers themselves don’t understand what it’s like to work on their own terms. How can students learn freedom from adults who are trapped?

    Not long ago I was deep in the mindset of jobs and career and desperate for all the effort I put into schooling to have not been the waste that I, deep down, always suspected. In that mindset if I’d heard of people trying to dismantle the system that raised me I’d have pushed back despite my intellectual conclusions and only because of my emotional ties to that system. On top of this we have teachers earning their keep from this system and, right now, they’re afraid to even speak their truth in public for fear of the job they depend on being made even more difficult.

    What education can become, whatever it ends up looking like, can be created now… but it will be rejected and feed our cyclic system if it is not co-created, co-owned and co-lead by teachers. That’s why I’m beginning with teachers blogging anonymously. The keyboard is the first step. Connections are the second. And, after a tipping point, things will evolve through the energy, shared vision and effort of those who will be leading and owning teaching in the second half of the 21st Century: the teachers.