I’ve just finished an unusually busy round of work in schools: insets with more than 100 teachers, workshops with more than three times that many students, all in the space of a few weeks. The work was arts-led and creativity-driven, intended to offer students a different perspective on certain subject matter and expose teachers to some processes they might not otherwise have access to.
It’s an interesting time to be working so intensively as an insider/outsider in our education system. I say ‘insider’ because I probably experience a wider variety of schools, both culturally and geographically, than most teachers, which offers a very broad perspective on ‘education’ as it now happens. But on the micro level, I’m always an outsider: as anyone who works in schools knows, each school is its own little universe, distinct in culture and operation, even if linked in its aims to every other school in the country, not to say the world.
Still, having now finished this recent burst of delivery, I can’t help but feel as though I’ve glimpsed something of the zeitgeist when it comes to publicly-supported education in this time of global austerity. And here’s what sticks.
- The teaching profession is harder than its ever been. Longer hours, more paperwork, more targets, bigger classes, fewer resources, more scrutiny. A friend working in finance said recently that he, too, faced these kinds of challenges. Yes, I said, but your paycheque probably involves several more zeroes than that of most teachers, none of whom will receive a fat bonus if they do a great job. The conversation ended there.
- There is nothing as much fun as a group of switched-on, fully engaged, creative teachers. I’ve written books and produced theatre, but I can honestly say that I’ve experienced some of my liveliest, most enjoyable professional moments while playing around with ideas and possibilities with teachers who clearly love their job and like each other.
- On the flip side of the above, some teachers should not be teaching. If you’re loudly describing children as ‘impossibly thick’, you should leave or be forced to leave. If you’re allowed to say such things openly, amongst staff, perhaps even in earshot of students, your school’s leadership needs to change. Sadly, neither seems to happen very often.
- Strong leadership makes a strong school. A head teacher who gives up his afternoon to help support a student workshop is different from one who cowers in a corner as his staff feels free to openly abuse the practitioner (both scenarios I experienced in recent weeks). Probably obvious, but seeing is believing.
- Government’s various schemes, such as academies and free schools, seem to make not a blind bit of difference to any of the above. Pushing superficial reform while cutting actual resources is even more cynical than rearranging deck chairs on a sinking ship. It is more like encouraging lower-deck passengers to switch cabins, even as the hatches are spun shut above them as the water floods in below.
- The discipline culture in our schools is worryingly Orwellian. So many children can’t form an independent opinion yet can mach schtum at the merest gesture of their teacher. Where will this lead?
- Teachers are hungry to be more creative in how they teach yet too often have neither enough time nor virtually any structural encouragement to do so. Given this, it’s a wonder that so many teachers are still so very creative and engaged. Thank goodness they are, because they’re the ones keeping the whole creaking, sinking ship from going under altogether.