‘It is sometimes an appropriate response to reality to go insane.’ So observed American science fiction writer Philip K Dick, way back in 1981. Dick, whose work inspired the cult movie Blade Runner, was not talking about education. Thirty-five years ago, such a comment would not have been relevant to schools. It is now.
The current ‘reality’ of primary education is convincing many teachers that insanity might be an inevitable and actually a preferable outcome to continuing in this crazy world where what is educationally wrong is held up as right by those who must be obeyed.
For those of us who daily engage in this topsy-turvy turmoil, the 10th anniversary conference of the Cambridge Primary Review Trust on November 18th was deeply reassuring. It was also by turns depressing, alarming and inspiring, but most of all, for an ordinary classroom teacher such as myself, it was reassuring.
We don’t get out enough. Maybe once a term we escape to talk and share the Catch 22 dilemmas of our working lives. (Don’t teach to the test, but don’t you dare do anything else…) The rest of the time we inhabit classrooms with glass ceilings through which we are scrutinised by Lord Data, he who really must be obeyed, and his many acolytes. Some of these come in paper form, some have only a virtual existence, some, sadly, are only too human. They gaze through the ceiling, tut-tutting and often disagreeing with each other, but we can’t answer back.
Thus it was so heartening to read: ‘What works and what matters: education in spite of policy’ – the title of the conference keynote. Not only was it a relief to be able to applaud the sentiment, but it was also inspiring to realise it was being said in big letters to a hall full of people who all agreed! There was, for example, the new headteacher who took on the job with no training and little experience but who had the guts to get rid of all those time-wasting tracker tick-boxes. There was another head, insistent that she ‘doesn’t want to play their games’, but uncertain how long she can hold out in the face of indifferent Year 6 Sats results. There was the full-time teacher now embarked on a full-time PhD in order to bring philosophic questioning to the primary classroom.
And, of course, there were so many eager to celebrate the moral, ethical, social and cultural aspects of primary education. They daily risk their mental health subverting the accountability systems imposed by politicians, inspectors and academy chain executives to do the right – and sane – thing. As one teacher said: ‘I had my worst time ever as a teacher in May 2016. Those Year 6 Sats ran counter to everything I went into education for.‘ How has this happened? Well, it’s down to a surreal combination of what mad Lord Data says can be measured and what 18th century politicians say 21st century children need to know.
The insanity that is reality was summed up best by Robin Alexander, chair of the Trust, in his keynote speech. Policy is now ‘dangerously counterproductive’. It has become ‘ ever more inescapable, intrusive and impervious to criticism’. Classroom priorities are dictated by politicians increasingly susceptible to personal whim. One only has to remember Michael Gove, responsible for exhuming fronted adverbials, burying calculators and the re-examination of long-dead questions. As Alexander said of an edict from one of Gove’s colleagues: ‘Is it really essential … that every Year 6 pupil should know who shot England’s King William II, especially when this is a question that no historian can answer?’
Such madness is everywhere. Teachers battle with a national curriculum that is, to quote Alexander, neither national nor a curriculum. In the scary era of post-truth politics, the problem is also ‘the sheer dishonesty of the government’s approach’ to what is taught, claiming breadth and balance whilst setting high-stakes tests that enshrine ‘minimalism, narrow instrumentalism and a disdain for culture’. Such machinations are never welcome given that they do a profound disservice to the country’s young children. In times of Brexit and Trump, they are horribly reckless.
And what stands between the children and the reckless politicians? Obviously CPRT with its enlightened curriculum based on ‘reliable evidence and clear and valid vision’. Some campaigners on the side of the sane – for example Melissa Benn seeing hope in a middle-class rebellion and protests such as More than a Score.
And then there’s us – the classroom teachers. As Robin Alexander said:
It’s the teachers who have heeded this message that the Cambridge Primary Review Trust celebrates. Their insistence on professional autonomy underpinned by reflection, evidence and vision underlines the force of another often-repeated quote from the final report: ‘Children will not learn to think for themselves if their teachers merely do as they are told.’
Teachers do continue to heed the message of the final report of the CPR. All those at the 10th anniversary conference know it is the right way to go and that it is based on evidence not increasingly dodgy ‘data’. They continue to not merely do as they are told. But, make no mistake, this is a heavy responsibility for the overworked and not-terribly-well-paid teacher to shoulder. How much better if we could make sure, as Shakespeare urged, that: ‘Madness in great ones must not unwatched go.’
Stephanie Northen is a primary teacher and journalist and one of our regular bloggers. She contributed to the Cambridge Primary Review final report and is a member of the Board of the Cambridge Primary Review Trust.