Teachwell | Have We Learnt Our Lessons?
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Have We Learnt Our Lessons?


I blogged the full transcript of James Callaghan’s Ruskin Speech here


Trendy Teachers


Callaghan tried to be balanced on this – more so than I had imagined from the excerpts I had read in the past.


“First let me say, so that there should be no misunderstanding, that I have been very impressed in the schools I have visited by the enthusiasm and dedication of the teaching profession, by the variety of courses that are offered in our comprehensive schools, especially in arts and crafts as well as other subjects and by the alertness and keenness of many of its pupils.”

“Clearly, life at school is far more full and creative than it was many years ago. I would also like to thank the children who have been kind enough to write to me after I visited their schools: and well-written letters they were.”

“I recognise that teachers occupy a special place in these discussions because of their real sense of professionalism and vocation about their work.”


He goes on to outline his concerns:


“But I am concerned on my journeys to find complaints from industry that new recruits from the schools sometimes do not have the basic tools to do the job that is required.”

“Then there is the concern about the standards of numeracy of school-leavers. Is there not a case for a professional review of the mathematics needed by industry at different levels? To what extent are these deficiencies the result of insufficient co-operation between schools and industry? Indeed, how much of the criticism about basic skills and attitudes is due to industry’s own shortcomings rather than to the educational system?”


This is actually a lot more balanced in approach asking where the fault really lies and does not make the assumption that it is purely down to teachers. Even in terms of methods he tries to be balanced despite his own reservations:


“On another aspect, there is the unease felt by parent and others about the new informal methods of teaching which seem to produce excellent results when they are in well-qualified hands but are much more dubious when they are not. They seem to be best accepted where strong parent-teacher links exist.


This is an interesting comment and especially in the face of the fact that the mostly middle-class progressive teachers didn’t see much call for explaining themselves to working class parents. Certainly they weren’t advertising their Trotskyite ideals or the idea that an academic education was an elitist imposition on the working class. Seemingly it never occured to these teachers that maybe the working class parents did not agree with them and maybe they had a point.


This attitude has not really changed. The way I have seen nurture groups presented to parents simply does not reflect the reality of what those groups are intending to do, especially when it comes to ‘creating attachments’ or the anecdotal nature of Boxall’s work that this intervention is based on. Neither does there seem to be any concern about the long-term implications of such an intervention, whether it is suitable (given that it can mean 3 terms out of class with TAs rather than qualified teachers). I have seen the genuine concerns of parents batted away by the BST who in effect was pitting those running the nurture group against what she perceived to be feckless parents who had left their child with ‘attachment issues’ as defined by the Boxall Profile (of course they do!). Where is the long term data? The last time I looked no longitudinal study exists. Someone on twitter was trying to convince me 2 years counts as a longitudinal study.  I don’t think I need to damn education researchers when they damn themselves. Let’s be clear this is an intervention that started in the 1970s and those who peddle this intervention haven’t bothered to even find out its impact on the course of the life of even one child to my knowledge. As I said – arrogance.

Callaghan was even handed even in terms of the criticisms made of the teaching profession:

“To the critics I would say that we must carry the teaching profession with us. They have the expertise and the professional approach. To the teachers I would say that you must satisfy the parents and industry that what you are doing meets their requirements and the needs of our children. For if the public is not convinced then the profession will be laying up trouble for itself in the future.” (my italics)

He goes on to state:

“The goals of our education, from nursery school through to adult education, are clear enough. They are to equip children to the best of their ability for a lively, constructive, place in society, and also to fit them to do a job of work. Not one or the other but both. For many years the accent was simply on fitting a so-called inferior group of children with just enough learning to earn their living in the factory. Labour has attacked that attitude consistently, during 60 or 70 years and throughout my childhood. There is now widespread recognition of the need to cater for a child’s personality to let it flower in its fullest possible way.” (my italics)

Furthermore, he asks for balance:

“The balance was wrong in the past. We have a responsibility now to see that we do not get it wrong again in the other direction. There is no virtue in producing socially well-adjusted members of society who are unemployed because they do not have the skills. Nor at the other extreme must they be technically efficient robots. Both of the basic purposes of education require the same essential tools. These are basic literacy, basic numeracy, the understanding of how to live and work together, respect for others, respect for the individual. This means requiring certain basic knowledge, and skills and reasoning ability. It means developing lively inquiring minds and an appetite for further knowledge that will last a lifetime. It means mitigating as far as possible the disadvantages that may be suffered through poor home conditions or physical or mental handicap. Are we aiming in the right direction in these matters?” (my italics)

He made a pertinent point about standards too and the expectations of the critics of teachers:

“I do not join those who paint a lurid picture of educational decline because I do not believe it is generally true, although there are examples which give cause for concern. I am raising a further question. It is this. In today’s world, higher standards are demanded than were required yesterday and there are simply fewer jobs for those without skill. Therefore, we demand more from our schools than did our grandparents.”

He concludes with:

“I have outlined concerns and asked questions about them today. The debate that I was seeking has got off to a flying start even before I was able to say anything. Now I ask all those who are concerned to respond positively and not defensively. It will be an advantage to the teaching profession to have a wide public understanding and support for what they are doing. And there is room for greater understanding among those not directly concerned of the nature of the job that is being done already.” (my italics)

I think the way he talked about the debate and the concerns was even handed and an attempt to carefully consider both the views being expressed by teachers at the time and also those who were critical of the trendy teachers and their methods.

Teacher Autonomy:

It doesn’t seem to me that any of his questions were unreasonable, yet there are many, even now, even after actual declines in standards, who still think the same way as those who told Callaghan:


“… to keep off the grass, to watch my language and that they will be examining my speech with the care usually given by Hong Kong watchers to the China scene.” It is almost as though some people would wish that the subject matter and purpose of education should not have public attention focused on it: nor that profane hands should be allowed to touch it.”


“There is nothing wrong with non-educationalists, even a prime minister, talking about it again. Everyone is allowed to put his oar in on how to overcome our economic problems, how to put the balance of payments right, how to secure more exports and so on and so on. Very important too. But I venture to say not as important in the long run as preparing future generations for life. RH Tawney, from whom I derived a great deal of my thinking years ago, wrote that the endowment of our children is the most precious of the natural resources of this community. So I do not hesitate to discuss how these endowments should be nurtured.” (my italics)


Want to counter that? Should only economists have a say in how the economy is run? What do you as a teacher know about it really? Are you prepared to tolerate not having an opinion on foreign interventions? Should only those in the Armed Forces have a say? Could say the same thing about any number of issues. What made educationalists tell him that? Arrogance.


Progressive teachers just strike me as petulant teenagers who’ve crashed the car and whine about it not being their fault (we all know that it’s poverty that has to end first before they can teach anything academic to poor children, not that they started a process several decades back where they simply didn’t do it because of their own ideology).


No scratch that, it is like teenagers who’ve crashed the car several times, can not reflect on what they did wrong or acknowledge it. Then whine on about how they are not trusted anymore, how it’s so unfair and how no one understands them because they are so complicated. Also, they can’t understand why they have to prove they can actually drive before they are given the keys to the car back.


Phil “read my ten books” Beadle’s last blog typifies the arrogance of teachers from that generation. Half an apology followed by tweets demonstrating that he doesn’t really think he did anything wrong. The only impression I got from the blog was ‘my ideas, my beliefs, my wants, my ideology, my need to be creative, my right to indoctrinate children in socialist ideas.”.  I don’t doubt his assertion that he didn’t fail children personally but that doesn’t change the fact that children were failed, especially the poorest.


Laura McInerney’s recent tweet about how any method could potentially work in some situation somewhere so we should never stop teachers forms using any method. If it works. How do we know it works? Outcomes. What outcomes? More to the point, what is this other than asking for license to do what ever you want? I didn’t appreciate the patronising “she said if it produces the outcomes’ because this ignores the quite simple fact that it may not, and that is a waste of a child’s education. It also ignores the reality that some outcomes are not produced by one teacher in a specific year group – reading is a prime example.


Even if it does not produce outcomes, no idea or method can ever be taken off the table because it might work in some other context given the numerous variables involved in teaching. So that means a teacher can keep going with the same method regardless of how many times it might fail because there is a chance it might succeed at some point. I said at the time this was not thought out and I restate that here. It is telling that someone as smart as Laura is struck by the stupid stick when she is sticking up for the progressives desire to be granted more freedom.


I take JL Dutaut’s point that we can’t expect teachers to never have any freedom but like the teenager scenario it would help if there is a modicum of growing up involved that demonstrates it’s worth the risk. The micromanagement of SLT gets us nowhere but neither does constant opposition to elected politicians who have every right to question us if we are not doing our jobs properly. If you want to be your own boss then start up your own business or be self-employed – you can’t work for others and expect to be paid for just ‘being you’.


So the following is the bare minimum as far as I am concerned:


a) Acknowledge both past successes and mistakes. Use these as a starting point. Stop treating the 1970s and 1980s as a golden period that you want back – no one is going to hand you the ability to screw up the life chances of thousands of children with no comeback.


b) Accept the reality that there are better and worse ways of educating children. There is nothing great about failing successive generations in the same way for the same reasons, no matter how much you like an idea.


c) With autonomy comes responsibility. What can and should we be held accountable for and how? Start coming up with some ideas instead of sulking in a corner and hoping the parents will let you off the hook. It’s clear that they won’t and they shouldn’t.


d) Teaching is not a job creation scheme for those who need to be ‘free and creative’. No one should leave school unable to read because of your whims. It’s not the fault of your students that you are not a singer, musician, artists, etc. This is a job that affects the life chances of others – especially someone like me. I think it’s a blog in itself to list the parts of my life that depend on having the kind of education I did.


e) It is not a job creation scheme for conflict mongers either. Trotskyite hypocrites who deem education elitist and irrelevant to the poorest or those from particular groups. It’s certainly not the place where one ideology should be promoted – just stop and think of the company you keep in that regard. It’s not pretty that’s for sure. And no you aren’t any better or anymore justified.


f) It’s hypocritical for anyone progressive to insist on autonomy but to refuse it to traditionalists. It’s not unfair if your sensible sister gets the same chances you have had to drive the car. It’s you who crashed it not her. To continue to defend ideas and methods that have failed repeatedly while at the same time screaming ‘child abuse’  at any non-progressive method does not demonstrate the maturity needed for the freedoms you are asking for. It just demonstrates ignorance, and an ignorance that is not conducive to being the kind of adult who can be trusted with the life chances of the next generation.


g) Revise some of the ideas – for Pete’s sake how can you even imagine you are a critical thinker or think you can teach it while treating the words of Rousseau, Dewey, Freire, etc as though they are written on tablets of stone? In most other fields they would have used empirical evidence to modify and revise those ideas. Instead, teachers’ experience is ignored if it doesn’t fit the progressive orthodoxy. Does this even sound right ? You want teachers to be heard but only the ones you want? In which case the government is simply playing you at your own game. And they have more power in the end.


h) Every time you support non-teachers like Sir Ken over teachers you disagree with, it’s you who is making it acceptable for non-teachers to have greater influence. In which case why shouldn’t other non-teachers have an equally great influence? Think about it seriously. Do as I say don’t do as I do isn’t going to work and you have no means of enforcing it.


i) Stop playing zero-sum games with the government. Look at what Callaghan actually asked of teachers? It wasn’t a great deal. If you are going to treat reasonable and unreasonable demands on our profession in the same way then we are responsible for pushing the moderates out of the pictures. Gove’s attitude to the blob is not a personal dislike it’s based on the behaviour and attitude of teachers, unions, ITT and LA’s. The rebellious teenager routine is tired and tiresome.


We need to be a grown up profession that understands its responsibility to the next generation and takes the consequences of failed ideas seriously. As Tawney told Callaghan – we need to think what a wise parent would want for their child not what a selfish teenager thinks is best.

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