The beginning of making it new (guest)


“It is difficult
to get the news from poems
yet men [sic] suffer miserably every day
for lack
of what is found there.”

Asphodel, That Greeny Flower and Other Love Poems – William Carlos Williams

What follows is a personal reflection. There are so many gaps and spaces because the enormity of what has happened is yet to be understood. Our world changed on the 18th March in 9 minutes meaning that we are all still making sense of what is to be done. Understandably, operational matters have taken precedent and strategic decisions about education are on hold. We need to do, to do something, to be of use and to show we care.

The questions will come later.

However, during the now it is important that we begin to reflect on questions of before and after.

What was teaching and what will it be?
What was education and how will it look?
What was society and what will it do?

I do not apologise for the scope of these questions, because it is exactly these types of questions we have stopped asking. We seem to manage rather than aspire. The neoliberal interests of human capital [HC], free movement of labour [people] and work-oriented skills have come to dominate discourse around society and thereby education in recent years. It is these attitudes and behaviours that have allowed this pandemic to take hold where questions of economy, individualistic entitlement and globalised and entrepreneurship meant politicians dithered and delayed in taking the action they had seen working. They showed us what they valued.

But these attitudes and behaviours have created other social pandemics and are not new – of poverty, of exclusion, of lack of social mobility and opportunity, of our children’s mental health and an inbuilt fear of the ‘future’ – all of which will be exacerbated by Covid-19.

Some may say we only need to tinker around the edges, but fundamentally all was and will be fine once we return to ‘normal’.

But what was normal? Education was bewildered, and we knew that. That we have been behaving as we have been expected too, not as we wanted to; tell me what to do and I will do it – change does not lie with me I am just a teacher.

Why did we not act? Some say out of fear or of being ignored. ‘The spiral of silence’ refers to this, the tendency of people to remain silent when they feel that their views are in opposition to the majority view on a subject. Remember the boy ‘…the Emperor’s got no clothes!’ In the story the Emperor recognises the truth but carries on anyway! The theory says that people remain silent for fear of isolation; fear of reprisal or more extreme isolation, in the sense that voicing a divergent opinion might lead to a serious consequences beyond that of mere isolation (loss of a job, status, etc.)

It appears the majority have come to accept the dominant narrative in education, not because they agree [or actively disagree], but because they ‘fear’ expressing or even having divergent views. That there is a conservative desire to conform regardless of the self-evident absurdity of the new initiative[s] – where other views are dismissed as mad, maverick, even dangerous.

But crisis changes this, and we see what once was hidden. It reveals tensions, bringing into sharp focus the failings of old narratives and old ways. They reveal to us what they are – habits and behaviours that are moribund, self-serving, and obsolete. They force us to re-evaluate what it is we are and who we are. Why it is we do the things we do and for whose benefit. Rosa Luxemburg wrote:

This is it [society] [in reality]. Not all spic and span and moral, with pretence to culture, philosophy, ethics, order, peace, and the rule of law – but the ravening beast, the witches’ sabbath of anarchy, a plague to culture and humanity. Thus, it reveals itself in its true, its naked form. [1915]

Again, it has proved to be. Where to begin, narratives are managed as something short lived, something containable, something definable, something where economy takes precedent over human life – but now the mechanisms created to produce agendas now faulter, powerless to control the unravelling of the carefully constructed ‘normality’ and we see it for what it is.

Therefore, change is coming, but what will that change be like? Who will identify the changes that are needed? How will we articulate them and who shall we tell? Education is the emancipator, it gives opportunity and improved life chances – not because you can pass an examination, but because it enables you to realise yourself as human. To know who you are? To understand the world around you and to act upon it?

We must ensure our children are gifted the future, not denied it and each of us has a role:

Oh me! Oh life! of the questions of these recurring,
Of the endless trains of the faithless, of cities fill’d with the foolish,
… What good amid these, O me, O life?
That you are here—that life exists and identity,
That the powerful play goes on, and you may contribute a verse.
Walt Whitman [1892]


How would you answer this question – what is the point of Education?

It should and must be one of the most urgent of the crisis, because this will end and, in the end, it will change us all, as all we knew melts into air. In the uncertainty, however, one thing is certain we cannot, must not, allow the system to reset itself, as it will undoubtedly want to do, and adopt the same mechanisms that existed before our world was put into ‘lockdown’ – where we excluded, demonised and fractured all that we now need.

So, there is a choice. Some will say we must wait until it is over to make a choice, until schools are back to do what they do. However, we must reply that – what is that, that school’s do? How do we educate in a world changed by a collective experience born of nightmares?

It has been said that if the emotions are free, the intellect will look after itself and what we do know is what we clearly value is emotional intelligence – compassion, altruism, care, the proximity of others and love. Not I would guess empty rhetoric and accountability – ‘closing the attainment gap’, conducting the SNSA, SQA verification, Authority PEF targets, HIGIOS?4, HMIe Inspections, VSE, and the litany of other external impositions and control measures that are placed between us and what education is for.

I have said to my students and parents many times that I do not care about As, because what use is an A if you are cruel, a liar, vicious or a thief – it is who you are not what you have that is most important.

But the system we have called education has rendered all fearful of the consequences of their judgement, erasing agency to shape and change lives just in case those who are the self-appointed gate keepers of what an education should be deem them to be wrong. And as the current horror engulfed us, I have watched what it has done. I watched my students, looking lost and confused because there will be no examinations, teachers worried and concerned not just for their students, but also for the consequences of their judgements. Parents wondering what it will all come to – responding with either kindness or aggression. The three most important parts of any education system appear lost unable to navigate a pathway through the extremities of our plight because of what the system values and here it was manifest.

There have been broader questions too, asked about ‘equity’, access to education and robust data – the mantras of the preceding years echo through the empty schools and towns in a world that is so different, changed so rapidly from when, in a far of land on the 31st December 2019, the first case of Covid-19 was noted by the World Health Organisation.

And where are the gate keepers to answer, support and direct – those who will so earnestly look to re-establish that which has gone not realising that that is now already behind them. They are impotent – their silence deafens, as they bluster and defer. And the government? The difficulty they faced was the rapidity of the change, it was so fast that no one had time to adjust the narrative.

So, what is to be done?

In 2015 Gert Biesta wrote a paper ‘What is Education for?’ It touches on the centrality of the teacher – the professionalism, the judgement, and the dedication of those in our vocation. He shows how education could, maybe should be, where a teacher is the trusted and supported centre of a framework that encourages, challenges and judges wisely the way education should be for our children.

This idea of the teacher [and I include here all those in a school] is one we all recognise as our ideal and it is one, we strive for daily. However, Biesta wrote the piece – in praise of teachers – because it is not common. Despite the rhetoric of those bodies that judge, measure and dictate, teachers are a threat and an impediment to the system not the solution.

So, we need to re-set and have a learning revolution were pupils and teachers do come first. That we remember how we felt when our lives were hollowed out and we feared death so that what was once shall not be again. We must say what we need!

We need culture not systems.
We need support and agency.
We need action not words.
We need time and space.
We need to replace the word ‘competition’ with collaboration.
We need to expose the educational lie that children do best when they are set against their peers rather than encouraged to support them, where schools are judged on the data they produce that creates perversions of reality that have real impacts because those teachers learnt that it was about competition and winning that mattered.
We need to rid ourselves of the moribund systems that grades schools, further embedding the competitive culture that stifles voices of innovation.
We need truth not social media generated and managed fantasies.
We need love and we need compassion.
We need to make it new.

Richard Summer

Faculty Head Secondary School Scotland

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