Several years ago, in a life before teaching, a colleague of mine, who had drunk thirstily at the wellspring of self-improvement books, declared herself to be ‘made positively kryptonite’ by the language of paradigm shifts, synergisation and pro-activity. I have thought subsequently what an asset she might have been to the world of education. Being forged of the stuff that would bring Superman to his knees would be a very handy teacher attribute to possess; especially at this time of settling into a new school year.
Over the last five weeks, I have come to the conclusion that the grown-ups who work in education probably do require a dash of the superhero in their DNA, to be able to deal with the vicissitudes that all throng together at the starting gate of an Autumn Term. It is self-evident that the core business of education is transacted in the territory of change and challenge (the two things that human beings find the most difficult to deal with), the beginning of a new school year makes this even clearer. Every day brings some element of change to a school and the people within it: new teachers; new children; new uniforms; new classrooms; the first-time-ever drama of the lost lunch box or the missing PE kit; the first wet play; the first windy play; anxious mummies and daddies: ‘someone’s “stolen” his jumper and I can’t find it in lost property – they all look the same’ (the first lesson in the power of labelling); more anxious mummies and daddies pleading that their little ones should not have to suffer the life-threatening risk of playing with paint/water/sand/bikes as they will most likely come home a bit messy and liable to catch any number of a range of unspecified (but potentially pretty fatal) diseases carried by paint/water/sand/bikes. These episodes of tiny turbulence ripple through the daily current of school life, until things have settled down, a bit, by half term; children have survived the onslaught of learning through play in early years; routines have been carefully established; teachers and children have lost the, sometimes distracting, patina of novelty.
So here we are, at this stage in the term, looking forward to the calmer waters ahead of us; confident of bringing our children to the safe haven of the National Curriculum’s statutory end of year expectations. A place where all children over the age of six know that exclamations must begin with the word ‘what’ or ‘how’; where children over the age of ten ought, should, must and could use modal verbs to illuminate their writing and where pretty much everyone writes with a neat cursive hand – and so our course is set fair at Bankside. Teachers are now fully in command of change and challenge, having moved beyond its mere management at the start of the year. For learning is indeed about the process of creating transformational change in our children’s understanding, responses or knowledge. And the most powerful way to do this is through challenging their current ideas and moving them onwards and upwards in the process of their self-actualisation.
Except those unforeseen pesky changes just keep coming back to haunt us, on a local level: Dad’s left; Uncle’s come back; the police came round last night; Mummy’s had a baby; Nana died at the weekend; my new stepbrother has been unkind to me; we didn’t have any dinner last night (or the night before); you’ve inadvertently put the book back in the library box that I have loved reading for the last week and now it isn’t here and I am going to let you and everyone else that I am not happy about this. Massive changes; tiny changes, our children’s lives are constructed and framed entirely by these: it is the very nature of being a child and ‘growing up’. And teachers are employed not only to deal with the daily ramifications of all this but also to add to it, through the careful preparation and delivery of life-changing and challenging learning. Life in school is often defined by the ever-present ‘fine line’ between coping with turbulent change and promoting transformational change. And making this the engine of our professional moral purpose.
And more change at a national level presents further challenge to these adults tasked with creating happy, resilient, adaptive and successful schools. Imagine my surprise when, preparing for the predictable unpredictability of a new school year, I learnt that we can now look forward to all secondary schools being able to become selective grammar schools – and all in the name of social mobility. I applaud, of course, the aim of any educational policy that intends to address the growing social divide between rich and poor. I am slightly surprised that no headteacher I know seems to have been consulted about this lofty decision; perhaps there was a kindly assumption that we would not want to be troubled by such high-minded stuff – best left to the experts no doubt.
The ambition to close the gaps in educational – and social – outcomes for all our children is a key driver for Bankside and the reason that we are a proud member of CPRT’s Schools Alliance. We want our children to be the best learners that they can be; we use the themes and principles of CPRT as guiding lights to achieve this. I do wonder how the changes involved in the grammar school proposition (which seems based on a belief that, because of uniform selection at eleven, all children may be better equipped to throw off the shackles of poverty) sit with the carefully researched and pedagogically considered findings of the Cambridge Primary Review’s final report. This is a document designed to support transformational educational practice, to ensure equality for all. The introduction of an 11+ exam, with a pass/fail matrix may transform the lives of those who pass, but, for those who do not, the more predictable outcome of the turbulence associated with failure is a very real prospect, for all children – even the middle class ones – who underperform on the day of the test.
I would look to a truly transformational educational system, such as that in Finland, to be a model to create more socially equal learners. A country where there is no selection until 16 and where children run the gamut of the dangers of paint/water/sand/bike play-based learning until the age of seven. Perhaps we might ask the headteachers there, rather than the politicians, how this has been achieved amidst the quotidian hurly burly of the change and challenge of the ‘day job’ – with all the pesky predictable unpredictabilities, and not a grammar school in sight.
Sarah Rutty is Head Teacher of Bankside Primary School in Leeds, part-time Adviser for Leeds City Council Children’s Services, a member of CPRT’s Schools Alliance, and Co-ordinator of CPRT’s Leeds/West Yorkshire network. Read her previous blogs here.