I’ve made it home to NZ and it is a bittersweet return. I miss London and the people I shared it with, but there is also a sense of escape and with it: relief. It isn’t just escaping an epicenter of the pandemic, it is an escape from a failing education system within which I found little joy. I was lucky to have spent two of my years with a media department that has brought me considerable happiness, but it was surrounded by a toxic system. Below are some reflections on my time teaching in UK under some themes that have regularly emerged from my writing during this time.
Where are the Values?
A core part of my journey in the UK was looking for pockets in the system that shared my values. Ideally this would have been a school that as a community represented this – but ultimately I only found individuals. I feel let done by school websites that write about an engine entirely different from what is under the hood. I feel frustrated by leadership that talk of values in the start of the year staff meetings but then shelve them for practicalities. Recently, a newly introduced school vision has been boiled down to the directive to staff to label all work set on google classroom with one of the visions three key words: learn, achieve empower. The shift from an exciting shared language and school direction has almost immediately been undermined by the tick boxing exercise that will look good externally but loses all power to investigate and interrogate the vision and the potential for it to naturally emerge in our practice on the back of an engaging and collaborative professional journey.
Since 2018, when I arrived, I gradually improved my situation by moving schools after a challenging period of supply teaching, but I still never really found a school that meets my checklist. My most rewarding experiences were with the organisations I have encountered. Courageous Leaders is a group that holds it’s values up front and the people behind this are some of the most inspiring educators I have ever encountered. In our days together, I learnt a lot about authentic leadership, myself as a communicator and the art of mentoring; also, I proudly contributed to a publication written by the group. Perhaps Courageous Leaders remains so strong in its intent because it remains humble and small, while other similar organisations have expanded and been corrupted by a mission that undermines its values. I’m so grateful for this part of my UK journey – if everything else had been a disaster, Courageous Leaders would have made the three years worthwhile.
Assessment Or Else
In the Lord of the Rings we have the one ring; in the UK education system we have assessment. I was shook recently but a friend who is a nanny of two 4 year old children sharing with me the family’s concern and the extreme choices they were considering based on one child performing below the expected level. How is this child going to have a love of learning if already they are feeling the pressure of catching up? This is characteristic of a system with narrow measures of success without a holistic view of development. It also reflects a class system where those with means have options.
I have found assessment to be regimented to the point where teachers have no incentive to explore new approaches. There is no enabling attitude to enthusiastic staff. There is only hierarchy and transgression is punished. My most significant developments in terms of pedagogy have come from experiment and freedom to play. The life and death stakes of GCSE and A-Level results drives the entire system to corruption. Campbell’s Law is visible in the system in numerous ways.
Achievement tests may well be valuable indicators of general school achievement under conditions of normal teaching aimed at general competence. But when test scores become the goal of the teaching process, they both lose their value as indicators of educational status and distort the educational process in undesirable ways.Campbell, Donald T (1979). “Assessing the impact of planned social change”. Evaluation and Program Planning. 2 (1): 67–90. doi:10.1016/0149-7189(79)90048-X.
The most debilitating aspect of the assessment system has been the limitations of the set text system. I have written about this prescriptive approach at length. The quantity of the required content are significant in most subjects, leaving little room for responsive teaching or ‘hidden curriculum’ moments. As I wrote just before the pandemic began: “Dear front half of the NZ curriculum: I miss you”. The pandemic created an opportunity for reflection and reform that could have been quite exciting. However to date, the solutions presented have been band-aids for the gaping wounds that continue to disadvantage the next generation.
Quantity Not Quality
Related to this data experience is the approach to measurement in the UK education system. I heard the phrase ‘box ticking’ often and it accurately reflects much of my experience. I’ve been fortunate to have had a diverse experience of professional development, but the worst of it is always characterised by this idea of meeting a completion criteria rather than engaging with the idea of mastery or exploring the diverse opportunities created by personalisation.
I would generalise that the overarching approach to education is time-based. I’ve recently witnessed a rather reductive conflict about directed hours, which quantifies our time as teachers to a terrifying degree. I’m aware of the role that numbers play in respect to contractual fairness, but I did not get into teaching so I could be monitored when I log in and out everyday. This obsession with monitoring is a deterrent to the system; it views learning as temporal. Solutions to the lost learning time cause by school closures have been centred around quantifying this time and restoring this through low-cost methods. As outgoing Children’s Commissioner put it to the government: “Do you understand the additional harm that has been done to children during the pandemic? Are you serious about ‘building back better’ and ‘levelling up’?” She understands that this isn’t just about results and that this is much more complex situation that a set number of tutoring hours will fix. The neglect of emotional development, the role of social interaction and failure to see the curriculum as more than just test results from the leaders of this country is terrifying. The discussion about teaching and learning needs to be more nuanced than the reductive obsession with time spent in the classroom.
Every time I reflect on a context that has hindered me while being in the UK it is almost impossible to examine it in isolation. I wrote in the September return to the classroom after the first lockdown that we have been “failed systematically at every single level” and therefore it is impossible to hold the school leadership accountable when they are responding to guidance from the Local Authority who is held hostage by the requirements of Ofsted who are politically guided by the Department of Education etc. There is a crisis of leadership in education in the country, made evident by the contributions from the diverse participants in the recent Tortoise Education Summit. Identifying the problems is not difficult, but we appear to now live in a post-accountable world preventing them from being meaningfully addressed. This is evident from the top down. The government has continually avoided admitting its mistakes or acting decisively on matters of serious negligence or incompetence. There is no possible decision that might cause a dismissal, history can be rewritten through changes some words around, and people that speak out can be silenced through passivity or active smear campaigns. This creates a culture that I could see in the school that I worked in.
What does it tell us when the highest office in the country appears to ignore a reasonable moral code? It reveals a toxicity that infects and I’m glad to be getting out. However, it isn’t just the UK and leaving isn’t the solution. We have to fight for accountability and to restore trust in the system. As the Guardian education editorial put it: “the government’s neglect of young people during this pandemic is among the ugliest blots on its record, and one for which everyone who cares about education, both in politics and outside, must hold it to account.“
New Zealand: A Education Utopia?
In my time away I’ve come to hold memories of teaching in NZ in the same way a young child might hero-worship an absent parent. It might well be for good reason, but I’m anxious that I’ve held onto an image that is utopian when the reality is anything but. I’m conscious of the danger of comparing the approaches and cultures, but comparison is in many ways irresistible and it has probably done a disservice to my mindset. New Zealand has a values based curriculum and a front half with a holistic view of teaching learning; it has a growing movement for more effective culturally response pedagogy; it also has an assessment system that can be used powerfully with flexibility and potential for personalisation. But will I find the same battles of hierarchy, accountability, and quality vs quantity? I know that I’m returning to a context which is interested in evolving, where the discussion is rich and open, and education solutions are not fixed. Maybe this reflects the communities I have found in either country – the UK is a big place. I hope the voices pushing for meaningful change in the UK get louder; though I’m relieved to now take my voice back to Aotearoa. I will miss London; but it’s good to be home.