Change at the Chalkface: some reflections

A leading labour politician (Ed Balls) was recently quoted as saying that teachers “should not teach subjects, but children”. This was in the context of a debate about the content of the curriculum in our schools, and whether it ought to be adapted to contain material more interesting to modern, urban children. The suggestion was that if children were failing to succeed in the study of traditional academic subjects, then we should simply teach them something else. The aim of education, it is suggested, should be to open the children’s minds, to teach them thinking skills, to teach them how to learn; but not necessarily to teach them any specific and important data.

One of the reasons why I took the trouble to begin my own school was that I profoundly disagree with this approach to education. It seems to me that education exists to hand on a tradition, and to initiate the young into their intellectual and cultural heritage. It is an inherently conservative activity because it conserves and perpetuates the best in our culture. For our civilisation to flourish and be stable, strong and confident, we need to endeavour to give our children the same kind of education that the great men of our day received. We cannot afford to take the risk of inventing a different aim and content for the educational process; this would be simply to turn our children into guinea pigs.

Government attempts at regulation and standardisation in state-funded education have been motivated by the belief that reducing diversity and enforcing uniformity would lead to a rise in standards. The reverse has occurred, because teachers spend so much time ticking boxes that they do not enjoy teaching as they might were they only allowed more freedom. The private sector has not escaped this movement and has allowed itself to be drawn into jumping through many of the same hoops as the state sector.

These more or less political convictions, together with a deeply held religious sense that Catholic education was losing its way in the UK, prompted me to make an educational and entrepreneurial leap of faith that led to the founding of a boarding school for boys. However, another important and more personal source of inspiration was my own positive experience of school, and an enduring sense of gratitude and respect for my teachers, all of which made me wish to be part of providing a similar experience for children in the next generation. Many of my ideas about teaching were really about replicating what I had experienced in my own schooldays.

Over the course of the last year, inviting colleagues and friends into observe my lessons, and finding time to do some relevant reading, I have been confronted with some of the problems and challenges inherent in my own views about teaching, together with some of the logical consequences of these ideas; consequences that had perhaps not previously been fully worked out and incorporated in my own work as a teacher.

In the first place, children have changed and teaching has changed with them. St Ignatius of Loyola famously said “Give me the boy at 7, and I will show you the man.” He knew that in order to form a young mind, one needed to start early. These days, a lot of damage has already been done to young minds by the time they reach 11 years old; mainly because they are exposed to so many unwholesome influences from a very early age.

When I was starting school, in September 1976, television was something that started at about the time children came home from school and ended at what would have been thought a sensible bedtime for adults. At other times there was no transmission. No one I knew owned a cine projector, and there was no other way of watching a film except for going to the cinema. Children’s radio programmes such as Listen with Mother, and even television programmes such as Jackanory taught children how to listen, and furnished their mind with attractive and wholesome influences and moral sentiments. Most children would not have watched more than five to ten hours of television per week in those days, if they even owned a television. And what is more, the programming for adults was generally also suitable for children. Variety shows (such as the Val Doonican show), including singing, dancing and story-telling, were common and extremely popular. Even more daring shows such as The Monkeys were really no more than reworkings of timeless comedy themes in a modern setting. The first really modern show was Top of the Pops, which was only a weekly occurrence. I used to watch it when I was 5 years old and I thought it was funny, with the dancers prancing around in their flesh-coloured body-stockings, but I suppose, looking back at it, that it was the Trojan horse for our English youth. I can still remember one of the songs that was so popular back then, a Pink Floyd number: “We don’t need no education …”

When I was at school there was really no special provision whatsoever for children with learning difficulties. Children, both at primary and secondary level seemed able to listen. The teachers were also able to indulge in a great deal of creativity, which made them – and their lessons - more interesting. At primary school, when I was about eight years old, I remember my beloved headmistress Mrs Turrell came back from a holiday in Australia. The whole of the autumn term that year was given over to learning about Australia: its history, its geography, its culture (such as it is) and its wildlife. We must have learnt other things that term, but Mrs Turrell’s enjoyment of her first long-haul flight and subsequent month on the other side of the world, overshadowed – or rather cast a balmy antipodean light over – the whole four months until Christmas.

In 2002, when I opened my own school it had not occurred to me that teaching 11-year-old English boys would have changed much in the twenty years that had elapsed since I had been sitting at a schoolboy’s desk. The wake-up to reality was not slow in coming, although my own analysis of what has happened to children and to teaching has only really happened in this last academic year. This has been because Chavagnes has had a good year this year, all things considered, and I have had more space for thinking and reflecting.

I remember back in 2003 discussing with our first Head, who had taught for ten years in Zimbabwe, about the kind of pupils we were recruiting. He opined that we were just rather unlucky at having attracted an inordinate number of naughty and unteachable children. (Of course, looking back now, I remember them as angels!)

By the time he left in 2004, and having compared notes with colleagues in UK schools, he wondered whether some problems we had been having might have been to do with the fact that our teachers were – many of them – inexperienced in other schools in a modern British setting. My feeling is that the problem was really a mixture of the two factors, and a third. Firstly, our pupils were not the same kind of child that my colleague was used to in old-fashioned southern Africa, nor that I remembered from a 1980s grammar school; also, even if in the past, inexperienced and untrained teachers might have coped well enough with old-fashioned grammar school boys, with the new breed of child, teachers need to be much more professional and much more engaging (after all, they are now more clearly competing with television presenters for the souls and minds of their charges); lastly, there is the problem of expectations. Our expectations were perhaps just too high.

All of this brings me back to Ed Balls and his statement about teaching children rather than subjects. The lesson I am learning is that while we may defend the deposit of all that splendid knowledge and culture that we must hand on to the next generation, we must not be afraid to learn from our mistakes and to read the signs of the times. What we are doing perhaps needs to remain constant, but the way we are doing it may have to change. The ability to change, in fact, is often the secret of fidelity to tradition.

“But whatever be the risk of corruption from intercourse with the world around, such a risk must be encountered if a great idea is duly to be understood, and much more if it is to be fully exhibited. ... In a higher world it is otherwise, but here below to live is to change, and to be perfect is to have changed often.” (John Henry Newman, On the Development of Doctrine, Chapter 1, Section 1: “On the Development of Ideas”.)

My belief now is that teachers are getting better and better at the art of teaching, even if on the whole they know less and less about their subjects, while their pupils, dazzled by all that modern technology has to offer, are less attentive and less interested. It's a peculiar irony that there have been so many improvements in the teaching profession at a time when we are no loner sure what in fact we should be teaching to our children.

Our challenge, as faithful Catholic teachers, is - very much in the spirit of Gravissimum Educationis and Vatican II generally - to attempt to pass on the tradition (by that, I mean all that we ought to teach) in a new and engaging way.


Casablanca Fan said…

I enjoyed reading your thoughts on education. I am interested to read it again. At a first glance, I thought that you packed some very useful bits of wisdom into the piece. I am going to share it with some teachers that I know.


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