Teaching Barefoot#2

Last week I spent more time than usual in my son’s school. I am a Governor there and, as such, I was involved in interviews to find a new Deputy Head. I was in school for most of a day. I found it to be exciting and exhilarating but exhausting. A timely reminder of both why I loved teaching and why I had to retire from the profession. It has been over three years since Parkinson’s forced me to stop.

The last school I taught in was a state secondary school in the West Midlands. I was there a long time. 16 years I think. That is far longer than I ever intended. The reason I stopped there so long was that it had an exceptional headteacher. He nurtured me. Enabled me to grow as a teacher in ways that were apparently inconceivable elsewhere. His name was Jim. My father’s name was Jim. I owe an awful lot to those two Jims.

Neither of them forced me to be a certain way.

Neither of them told me what to do.

Neither of them brandished their authority like a weapon.

Neither of them ever issued threats.

Both encouraged me to find out who I was for myself. Both supported me on my journey. Both refused to condemn me even when my behaviour was baffling to them. Both put their trust in me.

To have someone put their trust in you is a most powerful thing.

When Jim (either one) said, “I don’t fully understand why you want to do this thing but I fully support you in doing it,” his faith in me strengthened my faith in myself. His faith enabled me to overcome doubts and fears. His faith in me meant that I would not ever give up. I was never just doing it for me. Whatever I was doing, I was doing for Jim too. Not to please him. Not to win points. It was just that I felt that I had a duty to repay his trust. I did not want to abuse the trust that he had given.

In the context of a school, trust is paramount. Nothing happens without trust. I was lucky to work alongside a Head and Deputy who understood this. The act of teaching depends on an unwritten contract between the teacher and students. A contract of trust:

The students say:

You can trust us to put aside our individual needs and desires, behave as you request even though there is nothing that compels us to do so.

In return, we trust you to teach us something that will be useful to us in our adult life.

Trouble is, although the vast majority of students keep their side of the bargain and behave as we ask, I am not sure that we adults are keeping up our side of the bargain. I am not convinced that we are teaching anything that is really useful to young people in the future. This is not the fault of the teachers. It is the result of a number of decisions by successive governments. Ultimately, it is the result of allowing education to be influenced by party politics. When this happens, decisions about education start to be made for reasons other than purely educational ones. Decisions are made that are not primarily in the interest of young people but in the interest of party political point scoring, in the interest of ministerial advancement, in the interest of financial institutions.

As we approach a General Election in the UK, I would expect to see each party state plainly what they see as the purpose of education. So, I went and trawled through the party manifestos to see what I could find.

The Conservatives say,

“The Conservatives are doing all we can to help the next generation get on in life and succeed in the global race. 

That’s why we’re improving education by:

  • Protecting the schools budget – because nothing is more important than our children’s education

  • Raising standards and restoring discipline – so our children can compete with the world’s best and enjoy a better future

  • Attracting the top graduates to teaching

  • Investing £18 billion in new schools – so buildings and facilities match our ambition for the next generation”

Notice the language used: “get on”, “the global race”, “standards”, “discipline”, “compete”, “ambition”. It is very much a vision of life as a competition and education as a tool the individual can use to help them win. It’s about being better than the competition. Coming out on top.

In contrast, Labour Party has this to say:

“Labour has a plan to drive up standards with an education system that works for all children and young people.1) We will put teaching standards first, ensuring that all teachers in all state schools become qualified and continue to build their skills, with more opportunities for high quality professional development, new career pathways and revalidation on a rolling basis.2) We will introduce robust local oversight of all schools through new Directors of School Standards in every local area, responsible for intervening in underperforming schools so that standards are raised, and commissioning new schools transparently and fairly so that there is proper planning for new school places where they are needed.

It is much more about equality. About giving everyone a chance. But the underlying assumption is that it is still a competition. Labour want to ensure that everyone has an equal chance in the race. But it is still a race.

So, in the search for a different approach, I had a look at the Greens:

“The Green Party believes that education should provide everyone with the knowledge and full range of skills they require to participate fully in society and lead a fulfilled life. The Green Party rejects market driven models of education that see its role only in terms of international economic competitiveness and preparation for work.”

It was refreshing to find a different vision of education. One that is explicit in its rejection of the race metaphor.

So, if you want schools to be a training ground for success (read: material wealth and power) in the battlefield of life, vote Conservative.

If you think it’s important that schools help all children get a fair chance to succeed in the race of life, vote Labour.

If you want schools to help children participate in society and lead fulfilled lives, vote Green.

Certainly, if you are a parent and care about what happens to your children in that big, grey building where they spend most of their day, it is worth spending half an hour looking at what the different parties have to say.

But, I fear, the reality is that education, however you vote, will continue to be seen as a vehicle by which Government can imprint its values on successive generations. It is difficult to imagine how education can ever be politically value free.

As soon as you have league tables, education becomes a race, a competition.

The more tests and exams you put into the system, the more you strengthen the idea of a race. More opportunities to win.

Throw in the concept of parental choice and you pit parents against each other in a race to secure a place at the “best” school.

In order to be able to tell which school is “best”, you have to have an Inspectorate. You have to have “standards” to be judged against. More race.

Trouble is, whether you are parent, student or teacher, it is easy to end up being so caught up in the race, so exhausted by the constant treadmill, that you forget to question the reasons why you are racing, forget to think about what you are racing towards.

Our schools at present are organised around the underlying assumption that life is essentially about competition. The focus is very much on the individual. Success lies in beating other individuals. Grades are measured, not against a constant standard, but on a bell curve. In other words, there will only ever be a certain percentage of students attaining a certain grade. Too few and the Government is accused of failing to raise standards. Too many and the accusation is of dumbing down, making the exams too easy. In other words, a child’s A grade is not an absolute measure of intelligence but of intelligence relative to his or her peer group. In other words, if you want to look clever, make sure you are not in a room full of clever people.

I would argue that Man has been a successful species not because of competition but because of collaboration. On his own Man is not very well equipped to survive: not very strong, not very fast, not equipped with sharp teeth or claws, no fur to keep out the cold, no tail to help us climb trees, no camouflage to hide us from predators. Left alone in the wild, we would not survive long. But what we do have is the ability to communicate, to work together towards a common goal. And, when we work together as a team, we create a whole that is so much greater than its constituent parts. We have survived as a species by collaboration, by working together.

Yet, in our modern world, we have made competition the norm. This week I watched the TV interviews with the leaders of the two main political parties in the UK. The event was set up very much as a competition. Each competitor had to go through different rounds, different challenges. An interview with Jeremy Paxman. A question and answer session with an audience chosen from the general public. Then the TV audience could judge who they thought coped best – the winner!

It had many similarities with the process my son’s school employed to select a deputy head. Applicants were judged on their performance in a series of carefully designed tasks. Having been part of the school’s interview panel and watched the TV interviews, I can only say that I would not have chosen either of the party leaders to be the deputy head of a secondary school. Neither of them inspired me with much confidence at all. They seemed like lost boys with little idea about what is actually going on in the world they want to run. I did not feel happy to put my trust in them.

Politicians in general, it seems, have lost our trust. Teachers, I hope, despite the best efforts of the Press, retain a little. I have not worked amongst politicians. I have worked most of my life amongst teachers. And I can honestly say that the vast majority of them do a good job and have the best interests of their students at heart. I am sure that many politicians go into politics from a desire to help better the lives of their fellow humans. But many seem to end up driven by a desire for power and self advancement. Our First Past The Post system of Democracy in the UK is based on a competitive not a collaborative model. It means that, whatever a politician’s motives, he or she will want to win the race, get the majority in Parliament, hold the power. To do good work of course. But the very fact that it is a race tends to distort values, bend morality, encourage the attitude that the ends justifies the means. And wars are fought to establish peace. Rights are eroded to ensure security. Freedoms are sacrificed to guarantee liberty. Labour rights are lost to maintain prosperity. In the end, the planet is sacrificed to feed growth.

For teachers, I suggest, power is rarely the driving force. If anything, a tendency towards compliance is the profession’s biggest failing. Teachers, despite misgivings, tend to do as they are asked. They submit to a regime of inspection by Ofsted which has always seemed to me to utterly pointless and absurd. I will explain my reasons for thinking this in more detail in another post. Here, it suffices to say that teachers, far from being power-mad, are more likely to be highly self-critical and (after a lifetime of being told to meet unattainable targets) suffer from low self esteem. Governments seem to dislike teachers. Mr Gove, in his time as Minister in charge of schools, declared war on teachers. The general declares war on his troops! Unbelievable.

Governments do not trust teachers. Governments think they know best. Better than teachers. They will tell teachers what to teach. They will tell them how to teach. And teachers will try and do as they are asked.

Isn’t it time that we put our trust in teachers to teach? Put our schools in the charge of a cross party/non-alligned group of experts: teachers, educationalists, people who will base their recommendations on research and scientific evidence. Not political gain or personal prejudice. People who will empower teachers to do their best. Which is all that teachers want to do.

Teachers or politicians. Who to trust?


  1. “Neither of them forced me to be a certain way.
    Neither of them told me what to do.
    Neither of them brandished their authority like a weapon.
    Neither of them ever issued threats.
    Both encouraged me to find out who I was for myself.”
    This is very good. Thanks.


  2. Eumaeus, you have picked out what I think is the essence of my post. As a teacher, that was the essence that informed all that I tried to do. I wanted my classroom to be a circus, a party, an experiment – never a straight-jacket, never a prison, never a filling station.


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