A number of people have asked me what I think of the ideas which were in the media this week from the Labour Party on education and schools. The first one which hit the headlines was the plan to make teachers be ‘revalidated’ every ‘few’ years. On the surface it sounds plausible and perhaps a realistic way to make sure that only teachers who could perform well in the classroom stay there.
When you dig down a bit though there are a number of issues. Firstly, there is no indication about who will do the ‘revalidation’. We have had expensive national bodies doing this sort of thing before. Apart from the expense of running a scheme and paying people handsome daily rates to tour the country’s schools ‘validating’ teachers, there is the question of duplication. We already have a national inspection service, with a very strong brand, Ofsted. Ofsted does important work but does not come cheap. Why would we want to set up another national bureaucracy, taking money, effectively, away from schools? (because there will be no new funding in education for at least another 5 years, I fear).
Perhaps, though, the intention is to give headteachers the power to do the ‘revalidation’. Well, that is fine, providing all headteachers feel strong enough to deal with difficult cases. And there are actually already many ways in which a headteacher can do this: capability processes, annual performance review, performance related pay, and so on. The problem is that there may be some headteachers who baulk at the difficulty of dealing with some underperforming staff, and so they don’t use these processes. And if they don’t use the existing processes effectively, why would they use a new process any more rigorously?
Anyway, it got Tristram Hunt, the Labour education shadow minister, some headlines. Which presumably was the intention. Though it is a shame that it feeds the media more stories about supposedly weak teachers. It would be nice sometime if the vast majority of very good teachers got some media profile too.
Last night I went to see the talked-about film 12 Years a Slave. The cruelty and dehumanizing barbarity inflicted only 150 years ago on African slaves in the southern United States was shocking and appalling. As I wanted the nevertheless excellent film, I thought about how this sort of thing happens. Some of you might be familiar with the famous Milgram experiments. Back in 1961, in the wake of the trials of some of the Nazi war criminals, the psychologist conducted a series of experiments which demonstrated that when confronted with a conflict between the orders of a respected authority figure and personal conscience, most people tend to obey the authority figure, even when it conflicts with their own conscience. In the experiments, the subjects were told to give electric shocks to people to punish them when they answered questions wrongly, and were assured that this was the right thing to do and was in the interests of research, even when the shocks were apparently causing significant pain.
Apparently decent people became caught up in the practice of dehumanizing treatment of African slaves, just as they did in Nazi Germany in terms of their treatment of Jews. They set their consciences to one side and conformed with what those around them expected them to do. What this brings home for me is the absolute need for the human conscience to be educated, strongly educated, and norms of right and wrong to be inculcated in young people from an early age. This is the only defense we have against the descent into barbarism which can happen so easily. In many ways, our conscience is the voice of our parents, or teachers, or, indeed, the precepts of our faith, echoing in our head in later life: “Don’t do that, it’s wrong.” The role of values in education seems to me paramount. As C S Lewis famously remarked: “Education without values, as useful as it is, seems rather to make man a more clever devil.”
Of course, we need not only to teach children what is right and what is wrong, and much of that, contrary to popular fashion is not merely a matter of personal opinion, but we also need to equip them with the strength of character to see through or stand up for what is right when under pressure. That is why, as I have said so many times on this blog, challenging young people with difficulties, sometimes putting them in uncomfortable situations, not always helping them through, and above all rewarding hard work and perseverance in overcoming challenges, is one of the most important aspects of education, both in the classroom and in terms of extra curricular learning.
It was wonderful this week to see the new Bennett sixth form building fully open for business. As well as additional classroom space, the Sixth Form Centre will be used mostly by Sixth Form students for study and research. It is intended to replicate the atmosphere and feel of a university library, and has some sixty computer workstations, as well as space for other work. It is fully wirelessly networked, so students using their own devices will be able to access the internet as required. A newly appointed study supervisor and assistant is managing the facility, which will cater for the rapidly growing Bennett Sixth Form, which is going from strength to strength, building on the success of the school as a whole. It will also be the centre for guidance and support for students applying to university. There will be an official opening of the Sixth Form Centre in February, more details of which will be published in due course.