Tuesday, July 21, 2015

It’s vital that our children study Dead White Men

According to a recent survey, a clear majority of teachers view the new knowledge-rich National Curriculum introduced last year as overtly political and unfit for purpose, as a consequence.
Now, I do not claim to know all of the reasons why this opinion predominates, but, having worked in the teaching profession for over a decade and, during that time, having listened to many of my colleagues decry knowledge as an instrument of oppression, I think it safe to assume that, within this majority, there is a strong conviction that such knowledge is indeed oppressive.
I recently stumbled across a blogpost which neatly articulated this prevailing view. It argued that such Anglocentric knowledge immerses ‘the oppressed in the culture of the oppressor’ and ‘ensures that the dominant culture’ remains unchallenged by the downtrodden and disadvantaged. To put it another way, it contrives to maintain the inequalities wrought upon society by the immanent evils of capitalism.
Interestingly, the blogger goes on to suggest – but not detail – an alternative narrative through a curriculum which strives to highlight and overturn these existing inequities.
In my opinion, though, this contention is littered with flaws. Most glaringly, it wrongly assumes that we live in a fixed, strictly stratified, intrinsically unfair society in which opportunity is scarce and social mobility non-existent. Don’t get me wrong: opportunity isn’t as widespread and easily accessible as one would hope, but it does exist. Why else do hundreds of thousands of migrants make the long, arduous and, in some cases, fatal journey to our shores?
Like the USA – the very embodiment of the capitalistic prison the blogger abhors – Britain is a land of opportunity. Capitalism has created and distributed wealth, increased living standards, funded universal healthcare and education, not to mention facilitated an attendant increase in life expectancy among all, including the poor, women and ethnic minorities (the so-called ‘oppressed’).
So when my Marxist-inspired colleagues and counterparts in the education blogosphere lament the malign effects of capitalism and decry the existence of a curriculum that attempts to preserve it, I cannot help but consider the failed alternatives and, in the words of John McEnroe, cry out: ‘You cannot be serious, man!’
Should we teach our children about Britain’s unique, inspirational, awe-inspiring evolution from feudalism to constitutional monarchy and representative democracy – something the blogger unfathomably believes ‘oppressive’? Of course we should.
But let’s say, for argument’s sake, that there are ‘oppressed’ minorities in our society. An Anglocentric, knowledge-rich curriculum like the one introduced last year evidently does not automatically render them ‘good-Soviets’ – supine, impotent and unable to question the status quo. On the contrary, many of history’s great reformers, even revolutionaries, were the recipients of what could be termed an occidental educational experience – Mahatma Gandhi, Kwame Nkrumah, Eric Williams, Edward Said and, dare I say it, Margaret Thatcher to name just a few.
If one wants to challenge existing hegemonic structures, one must first understand them, surely. In short, the ‘oppressed’ must be able to speak the language of the ‘oppressors’; or to put it in less emotive, perhaps more relevant terms, the poor must be able to speak the same language as the rich.
So the new National Curriculum is enabling rather than disabling. Depriving ordinary children of the knowledge available to the privileged is oppressive. They are left with no understanding of society, nothing to question and, most importantly, prevented from accessing the corridors of power which are, whether we like it or not, inhabited by those who enjoy a privileged, Anglocentric education in which ‘dead white men’ predominate.
On this last point, moreover, ‘dead white men’ have had a disproportionate influence over our history, whether we like it or not. That’s a fact. So if we want our children to know about and understand our island story, we must surely introduce them to such figures: otherwise, in the name of political correctness, we’re being dishonest and depriving them of important information concerning their shared provenance and place in the modern world – and let’s not forget that, as previously mentioned, learning about such people does not prevent one from questioning and challenging their legacy. It enables it.
Look, any curriculum is inherently political. By its very nature, it is, for want of a word with more benign connotations, an act of indoctrination. That much I agree with. The DFE recently decreed that we must instill our young charges with British values. If this isn’t indoctrination, I don’t know what is.
But let’s not imagine some kind of moral equivalence with Soviet Russia or Nazi Germany. Our values are based upon pluralism, human rights, democracy and tolerance. These are worth promoting – even worth indoctrinating – because rather than breeding compliance, they encourage contrarianism, questioning, challenge. So in our case, indoctrination, paradoxically, sets one free and broadens one’s mind. If anything it exists to challenge any existing inequalities.
If we were to teach an alternative, less Anglocentric curriculum, though – one tailored to galvanise resentment in those perceived as ‘oppressed’, without championing our shared and mutually advantageous national values and achievements – we’d jeopardize our survival as a democratic, tolerant, pluralistic yet cohesive nation. It really is that simple.
The Government’s new curriculum reflects this concern and aims to give ordinary children the same opportunities as the privileged few. There really is nothing to oppose. But to those who still do, worried about a conspiracy being conducted by the Bullingdon Club against the ‘oppressed’, I leave this message: one cannot legitimately argue that there are ‘oppressed’ groups in British society; neither can one argue that a traditional liberal education of the kind recently introduced helps to facilitate this non-existent ‘oppression’.
British society is mercifully free, open and eminently more desirable to live in than most other societies around the world, as demonstrated by current and historic levels of migration. It is an Anglocentric, core knowledge curriculum that is largely responsible for this monumental achievement. The new National Curriculum rightly rejects the relatively recent trend in favour of non-judgementalism and child-centred learning – a trend which places social cohesion at risk and retards social mobility – and seeks to challenge ignorance, increase opportunity and rekindle a sense of shared identity. We discard it at our peril. I’m just disappointed that Academies can opt out.

First published on www.conservativehome.com on 21st July 2015

Monday, July 13, 2015

Will Sir Tim Berners-Lee's selfless, far-sighted gift to humanity ever be repeated?

In 1994, Sir Tim Berners-Lee selflessly donated the World Wide Web to mankind. He refused to obtain a patent for and profit from a revolutionary invention that was arguably, among the practical and day to day alterations shaped by its influence, about to change the very nature of human existence. He sacrificed individual, material gain for the collective benefit of the entire human race.
I think that, given this fact, it is safe to assume that his alma mater, Emanuel School in south-west London, successfully inculcated a sense of responsibility beyond the narrow parameters of the self. It taught him to be aware of and contribute to something larger and ultimately more durable and long-lasting than one’s own perceived needs. In short, it instilled selflessness.
The aims of education are manifold. I contend that they can be categorised under two main headings.
First, the Individual. The purpose of education is to extend opportunity to each and every person, regardless of socioeconomic circumstance: it is to drive social mobility and, ultimately, enable the individual to climb the ladder of opportunity. Moreover, it strives – or at least should strive – to equip each person with the knowledge to understand and enjoy the world around them.
Through such knowledge and the material gain which hopefully accompanies academic success, the individual is liberated from the stultifying shackles of ignorance and penury, and is enabled and free to live a fulfilling life, bask in the wonders of the universe and reach the ultimate objective of self-actualisation. This is indeed a noble aim.
The second category is the Collective. Education is not just about the individual, but the good of society as a whole. By infusing pupils with morality and knowledge, they are being trained as custodians of their socioeconomic and cultural heritage – a heritage to be enhanced and passed on to their progeny – and instilled with the qualities and skills to be productive and useful to the collective advancement of not just themselves, but their fellow citizens. It is an enormous responsibility: one which is rarely explained in schools for reasons that will become apparent.
These aims are of course mutually reinforcing. What’s good for the collective is good for the individual and vice-versa. But a pertinent question is whether our schools successfully fulfil their obligations to deliver an education which meets these objectives. The answer, regrettably, is no. Our children are not satisfactorily inculcated with the morality, knowledge and skills to reach their potential, nor to be productive guardians of and contributors to humanity’s cultural inheritance. Why?
Alas, the collective aims of education are being subordinated to raw, untrammelled individualism – an individualism which ultimately, and paradoxically, stifles each pupil’s progress and stops him or her from fulfilling their potential.
In our desperation to live up to the mantra ‘Every Child Matters’, for example, and to ensure that each child has the same opportunities through ‘inclusion’ in mainstream schools – even if they’re eminently unsuited – we’ve colluded in a kind of reverse-utilitarianism. The individual has been elevated, almost sanctified, and his or her needs, in practice, now take precedence over the needs of the majority.
A child may be unable to cope in a mainstream school, for instance. He may be monopolizing a teacher’s time and resources as a consequence, and to the detriment of the 20-odd other pupils in the class. But in the name of equality, his needs, being an individual, are deemed to be of paramount importance. He must be allowed to realise his potential no matter what the cost. No consideration is given to the collective purpose of education, the continued sustenance and health of society, or to the utilitarian principles that should guide our actions. All that matters is the individual deemed disadvantaged.
Morality, moreover, is viewed as a construct of one’s own socioeconomic and cultural background. As a result, schools often refuse to sanction unruly pupils from dysfunctional households in the same way as their more advantaged peers. In a misguided effort to re-balance the inequalities bequeathed at birth, teachers individualise the school’s rules and treat their underprivileged charges with more compassion. Again, it matters not that the majority become frustrated and despondent and confused about the arbitrary nature of the school’s approach to rewards and sanctions; it matters not that behaviour deteriorates throughout the school in response, either: it’s all about the individual, nothing more.
In the same vein, the system refuses to allow pupils to fail. Grammar schools were abolished because they hurt the feelings of the individuals who failed the Eleven Plus, even though they provided an excellent education for thousands of ordinary children. In mainstream comprehensives, many remain wedded to mixed ability teaching lest the less able feel stigmatized and teachers – demoralised and exhausted – run themselves ragged to ensure the success of every child, even the ones who don’t deserve to pass.
Perhaps the most indicative aspect of this phenomenon is our existing hostility to the explicit teaching of facts. We no longer pass on a specific body of knowledge with the aim of entrusting our children with society’s cultural inheritance. That would have the distinct whiff of indoctrination. In particular, the historical knowledge taught in schools is viewed as a way of perpetuating the hegemonic status of the West and with it, the cultural dominance of white middle-class men. Instead, we are now encouraged to free our charges from this groupthink and collective straight-jacket, urge self-discovery and facilitate non-judgemental, individual enquiry. The phrase ‘child-centred learning’ pretty much encapsulates the current zeitgeist which elevates the individual above the collective.
In each instance, society as a whole unquestionably becomes less educated and, as a consequence, weaker. The nation’s moral certainties and cultural traditions are not being passed on, nor is a sense of collective responsibility and duty to one’s fellow citizens. It’s all about me!
And as the collective aims of education are subordinated to those of the individual, the individual’s aims, paradoxically, become unattainable, too. We can only thrive within the collective, after all. In the name of individualism, pupils are placed in unsuitable schools, taught that rules don’t apply to them, shielded from failure and prevented from acquiring a uniform body of knowledge. How can this possibly be beneficial?
Furthermore, whenever teachers are asked about the purpose of learning they invariably reply: ‘To get a decent job.’ This is an extremely individualistic, narrow way of looking at it. We rarely think about and explain the collective aims of the endeavour; the responsibility that children have to learn for the preservation, sustenance and progress of society.
The result is entrenched selfishness and, unless we reverse this damaging trend, I don’t think it’s too alarmist to predict, the sad, gradual demise of our civilisation. Will Sir Tim Berners-Lee’s selfless, far-sighted gift to humanity ever be repeated?
First published on www.conservativehome.com on 12th July 2015

Tuesday, July 7, 2015

Where are the social reformers who will speak up for abused teachers?

Vincent Uzomah. Have you heard of him? If you haven’t, it wouldn’t be a surprise. Apart from one small unremarkable news bulletin, his recent stabbing at the hands of a disgruntled pupil at Dixons Kings Academy in Bradford has been largely ignored, even though it should serve as a belated wake up call for a complacent profession and an indifferent public.
According to the most recent figures available, there were 17,190 fixed-term exclusions for physical assault on an adult and 50,630 for threatening behaviour towards an adult in 2012-13. Only 920 pupils, however, were permanently excluded for similar offences during the same period.
What do these disturbing statistics tell us? Well, not only do they highlight the fact that violence in our schools has become a mundane feature of everyday life. They also, on closer inspection, elucidate the reasons why the phenomenon is so widespread.
Every year, tens of thousands of children either threaten or assault their teachers; yet the vast majority are allowed back into school after a fixed-term exclusion. Only a tiny minority are permanently excluded. The number of exclusions permitted, moreover, before a permanent exclusion is issued, is infinite.
So where is the disincentive?  One could argue that these violent pupils are, in the main, being granted a short holiday for attacking a member of staff, before being invited back to resume their education. There is no deterrent. On the contrary, there seems to be a perverse incentive actually to be violent.
I suspect these statistics only represent the tip of a rather large iceberg. Many schools, including mine, do not even issue fixed-term exclusions for violent behaviour, especially if the perpetrator pulls on the Head’s heart strings with a hard luck story which divests him or her of any meaningful responsibility. Don’t forget, we live in an excuse-making, relativist epoch in which rules only apply to the already advantaged. In addition, schools are reluctant to use such penalties lest they attract Ofsted’s opprobrium – a very real possibility. So you could perhaps double these figures to get the real picture.
In short, schools should permanently exclude violent, threatening pupils – without exception. If they did, we would unquestionably see a reduction in physical abuse, threatening behaviour and a concomitant reduction in fixed-term exclusions in consequence. Eventually over the longer term, as children realise and understand the full consequences of their actions, we would also see a reduction in permanent exclusions, too. The current reluctance to issue exclusions of any kind is paradoxically fueling their growth. It is incredibly self-defeating.
And let’s not forget the lost opportunities and human misery behind these statistics. Pupils are forced to share their classrooms with unrepentant thugs, and teachers are expected to enthusiastically support the unsupportable. We are not only the abused, the ones on the receiving end of these violent outbursts, but we’re the individuals accountable for the progress of these children tool. Yes, we’re still responsible for their results, even though they’re unmanageable and, in many cases, uncontrollable.
It’s nothing short of a scandal. Apparently Teach First has recently offered psychological support to its new recruits. They are finding the profession intensely stressful, by all accounts. I wonder why…they are being subjected to regular verbal and physical attack; they are unsupported by their senior leaders, the Government and their unions; and moreover, despite these considerable obstacles, they’re still expected to teach with gusto and secure the expected progress of their young charges, even the naughty ones. For the life of me, I can’t understand why they’re finding things so anxiety-inducing, can you?
Look, we need to wake up to what’s going on in our schools. Uzomah’s fate may be rare, but it’s an extreme example of the violence that many teachers face, in many schools, on a day to day basis. Teachers have truly become the twenty-first century equivalents of nineteenth century factory workers. Where are today’s indignant, impassioned social reformers?

First published on www.conservativehome.com on 5th July 2015