I used to work at a boys’ school in South London with a good friend who one day was tasked with giving the leaving speech at the end of the Sumer Term to the Headteacher who was retiring after ten years or so of service. The Head, Arthur Bland (names have been changed to protect the innocent), had been supremely ineffective for the entire period of his tenure. The speech provoked gasps of shock and then admiration as it started with the immortal lines, “I think we all owe you a profound debt of gratitude for your singular achievement over the last ten years, an achievement so radical, so revolutionary, that it is unlikely to be either understood or emulated. You have made absolutely no difference. You bravely ignored the temptation to introduce radical change and you left us all alone to get on with our jobs. And we have been much the better for it.”
Truth to tell, Arthur was not following a deliberate philosophy of Zen-like inaction. He was just lazy and clueless. But his example holds an important lesson for us all: Beware the new Senior Leader desperate to Make Their Mark.
And now my confession. Reader, I was that guy. And I’m sorry. If I were to be knocked over by a bus tomorrow and rushed to hospital, the consultant who opened me up to perform emergency life-saving surgery would find curiously engraved on my heart the legend, “ Sorry about VAK.” If it all got too much, and a neatly folded pile of clothes were to be discovered on Brighton beach, days after my disappearance, the letter left next to the pile would read, “And I’m really sorry about making you do that Brain Gymn.”
Honestly, although the memory makes me go all hot and flushed, it seemed like a Good Idea at the Time. Everyone was doing it, not just me. And I had to do something, obviously. I was new, external and in post. And everyone was looking at me, waiting for me to bugger it all up. I had a career to build and a mortgage to pay. I had to do something. Anything.
And, of course, the same thing has carried on relentlessly. It’s going on now. Its going on in your school. A new, thrusting young firebrand leader somewhere is ruthlessly implementing some mad scheme, convinced that not to do so would be failing the kids. Or at least making you and the rest of the staff feel that. And they still keep coming: E-Bacc, Assessment without levels, Mastery assessment, the Knowledge curriculum, Literature exams without books, silence in corridors, lining up in fire drill positions every day, triple marking, PIXL madness. Dear Lord, spare us.
A new Hippocratic oath is needed for Education: Do No Harm.
Gove’s Greatest Gaffes
There have been countless utterly hopeless Secretaries of State for Education since the original swivel- eyed, mouth- foaming loon, Sir Keith Joseph at the back end of the Seventies. The queue from the current incumbent, Damian “Simple” Hinds, stretches back to the crack of doom. But the unchallenged Daddy of all of these charlatans has to be Michael Gove.
The charge sheet against him is long and weighty. On the principle that History teaches us what mistakes to avoid in the future, it’s useful and instructive to remind ourselves of Gove’s most heinous crimes. Coming in at Number one is this little beauty:
- Singlehandedly sucking the last atom of joy out of teaching English, and more important, learning English.
Picture the scene. Early September and I’m teaching a beautiful Year 7 class, uniforms still pressed and pristine, faces eager, books unblemished, new and full of the promise of the future within their grasp. I’m teaching a hoary old classic, getting them to do some extended writing (after some exploratory group talk, of course) about their old primary school. The kids love, in the middle of this Brave New World, to give themselves up to a bit of comforting nostalgia.
I’m trying to establish a class agreement about some useful criteria to extend the depth and quality of their writing. “So”, I say breezily, “what kind of things might you include to make this piece of writing better?”
A forest of hands go up, the kids leaning on one elbow, almost bursting. I turn to one girl and ask, “Yes, what do you think?”
She hesitates for a moment and composes herself. Finally, she tentatively gives her answer, dredging up all she had learned back in her old school in the run up to the tests. “Err…….., a fronted adverbial, Sir?”
Something inside rolled over at that moment and died quietly.