Recently I did a rough calculation to work out how many days teaching I have completed. Assuming a 195 day school year, it comes to in excess of 8,100 days in a 42 year career. Of that I have been a head teacher for over 4,200 days. As I write I have just 22 working days remaining. To calculate the number of pupils that I have taught or that have passed through schools I have worked at presents a daunting calculation if accuracy is demanded. However, assuming an average of 700 pupils per school (I have worked in 5 schools of varying size) the number of children that would have known me approximates to 6,500.
The oldest of those children will now be in their 60th year of life. I am not unusual in this respect as there are many teachers who have enjoyed a career of similar length - indeed there are a few at St Mary’s and you probably know who I mean! However, it is a salutary thought to consider all those young people that have passed through my professional life at some point. I quote the numbers above simply as an arithmetical exercise of approximation and I am not going to eulogise on the impact of these interactions. This would be an unnecessary and unwanted self-indulgence.
I would prefer to comment on the changes in schools that I have witnessed over 40 years, some good and some not so good. In my mind the biggest and most significant shift has been the way in which the learning of children has become so much more of the school’s responsibility. This is a good thing. I can remember in early days of teaching older colleagues advising me that there were some children who wanted to learn, some who didn’t and some that can’t. Therefore, I was further advised to concentrate on those that do and simply occupy the rest by giving them something to do that is easy and keeps them quiet. The logical extension of such practice was that if they passed their exams (O Levels and CSE’s) it was all well and good; on the other hand, if they didn’t pass it was their fault for not working or not being very bright. This meant that teachers never really considered their effectiveness, generally we were judged on whether we could control the class.
Fortunately this has turned nearly full circle as teachers feel incredibly responsible, schools are held to account and the viability and success of a school can stand or fall on its exam outcomes and Ofsted reports. Sadly, I believe the sharp focus on examination outcomes often results in children being taught to pass exams; however, on the whole, the learning of children is so much better now. The dialogue more likely to be heard in schools these days revolve around how can we help ‘so and so’ to understand this better. We try very hard not to leave children behind. School is a better experience for many more children than in the 1970’s.
Alongside this has come a radical shift in the way parents view prospective schools for their offspring: they arm themselves with data and Ofsted reports and treat it almost as though they are buying something from Amazon, the online behemoth. ‘How many 5 star reviews has it got?’ or ‘Shall I choose this one or an alternative?’ Fortunately schools have not yet begun to discount the cost of education to parents or add special bonuses… but I wonder about the future. The majority of parents now come and look at a school to see how it ‘feels’ and whether their child would be comfortable, happy and well looked after.
The expectations of parents once the child is in school have significantly changed too: this is sometimes good and sometimes bad. I can remember when I first started at St Mary’s and being guided by a document explaining aspects of Catholic social teaching embracing ‘The Common Good’. There are many parts to this but one has a particular resonance for me;
“The common good provides a balance against too strong an individualism by emphasising the social aspect of the human person. Authentic development is possible only if an individual interacts with and grows within a society. Thus each of us is required to work for the common good which includes all others within society.”
My naïve interpretation of this is that simply we should always consider the needs of others before our own and work together to make life better for everyone. I feel that today some in society have, to an extent, forgotten this in their pursuit of individual gain. In this very week we have had revelations concerning how already exceptionally well off people are avoiding paying tax by investing their money in ‘offshore’ funds. I am writing this on an Apple computer, a company that, has according to BBC’s ‘Panorama’ programme, actively ensured that they pay as little tax as possible by seeking refuge in various tax favourable dependencies. The response from individuals and corporations has been a collective, ‘We have done nothing illegal....!” Legal it might be but is it moral? I am not so sure. If some of these companies and individuals paid tax in the same way as you and I there may well have been no recession or austerity measures. Hospitals, social care and schools would have been properly funded and people looked after. This is the ‘Common Good’, social and moral responsibility to everyone and not just to themselves or organisation.
In school I have witnessed this on a micro scale: actions taken by the school and decisions made for the perceived greater good of the school are questioned because of the impact on one or two individuals and a bigger picture is not appreciated. Of course schools get things wrong from time to time. Trust in public institutions to do their best for everyone has diminished, whether it be police, doctors or teachers. Some of it has been our own fault, covering things up, not being open or explaining things properly, but some has been due to the increasing culture of entitlement and threat of litigation if it doesn’t work out in exactly the way the individual(s) believe it should.
As I prepare to retire to the Birmingham area near our grown up children, I ponder on the social changes that are happening around us. The events of the last 2 to 3 years were not predicted by anyone. We are set for yet more upheaval as the inexorable move to ‘Brexit’ takes place. I will say more in my final blog at St Mary’s next month but it is clear that resilience and flexibility has to be top of everyone’s education agenda. The ability to cope with stress, setbacks and change demands great resilience and children will need to learn to be flexible in order to succeed in their later working life. In simple and stark terms, it never turns out the way they think it might do.