Category Archives: Independent Education Today

Appeared in Independent Education Today (http://www.ie-today.co.uk/)

The real thing: authenticity in the classroom and beyond

Buried in a breathless review of the recent exhibition, ‘Raphael: The Drawings’, at the Ashmolean Museum in Oxford, there’s a reference to something I know – recognise – but have never heard named thus. It’s a term that really nails a complicated and attractive quality one might wish one had, particularly if one was a teacher. Because it would be lovely if all teachers had this quality. In spades.

Ladies and gentlemen, I give you ‘sprezzaturra’. Classicists and linguists among you may recognise the word – for all I know, it may be a regular in the more elevated crosswords. But let me repeat for you the definition offered by the critic in the particular article which caught my eye: quoting Baldassare Castiglione, credited with having invented the word, he defines ‘sprezzatura’ as “a certain nonchalance which conceals all artistry and makes whatever one says or does seem uncontrived and effortless.”

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It’s all about the money

Have we arrived in a place where cash is king?

OK, so when did the purpose of education become a hard-nosed process of steering as many students as possible in the direction of loads of money? Climb aboard at the age of five and head straight for the door covered in pound signs. Your path will be marked with numbers and equations and scientific experiments, but the fat financial reward will make it all worthwhile.

Will you lose a few things on the way – music, art, languages, a sense of history and the global perspective of geography?  Yeah, well, maybe, but what the hell…The price of progress? As EmCee sang so convincingly in Cabaret, “Money makes the world go around…” does it not?

Certainly a lot of people – influential, powerful souls – seem to believe it. And perhaps who can blame them if the life that the nation would like to lead – great NHS, trains on time, decent roads, care for the growing army of the elderly – is likely to be horrendously expensive?  And if earning a lot of money is the real goal, then it’s no wonder we now have very public and positively forensic examination of how that might be done.

The latest answer is to confine your studies as rapidly as possible to science, mathematics and engineering.  These are the star performers in the money-stakes. And when you’ve done that, then find out which is the best university to help you on your way.

In our information-rich age, you can find out what new graduates earn in every discipline a university offers and in every university in the land – and beyond, because if you had the time and inclination (and perhaps an intern?), you could find the numbers for every university in the universe and it would be no surprise to find that American universities score pretty highly in employment figures for their fledgling graduates.

“When did the purpose of education become a hard-nosed process of steering as many students as possible in the direction of loads of money? “

A headline in today’s (British) newspaper: ‘Within a year of graduating, dentists earn £31,000 a year.’  It’s quoted not so much to encourage everyone in Year 13 to start practising with mini-drills, as to offer an indicator of what young people should study if they want a good salary. Which, of course, they will need if they are to pay off the enormous debt a degree will generate even in this country, thanks to every university deciding that a degree is a degree wherever it is won, so they all charge the same fees, even though the likelihood of an Oxford degree earning you a better salary than a nominally similar degree from, say, Wrexham University seems, to me at least, quite remote. It is, as they say, complicated.

But you can’t complain about lack of info.

What is the price of university?

In my own headship days, I was the last resort for an American father whose daughter had been with us just a year and wanted to go to a British university. She was severely dyslexic – not a problem today, I know, but in the not too distant past a real stumbling block, universities not then having discovered that dyslexic students might actually be very bright indeed, often in surprising ways.

Anyway, I explained that she was unlikely to find a place. Father was furious. He ranted, “What is it with you Brits?  Everyone goes to college – she has to go to college. In America, dozens of colleges would take her. I know she’s not academic, but she deserves a place just like the next kid!”

At the time, in Britain, academic expertise was the sine qua non of going to university – you could not get in without passing quite tough A-level exams at the end of a two-year course, no course work. Tasks like five essays in three hours on some very big books – try The Mill on the Floss, all of it, without a handy exam board-produced study guide.

I said going to university was about, you know, studying – for which his lovely daughter was ill-equipped.

“No, it’s not,” he replied. “It’s about graduating. And every kid should be able to do that.”

Maybe he talked to his MP, because in due course the British government adopted the same view. If the old universities could not accommodate all students, then create new ones which could, with courses on wild and wonderful disciplines such as golf course management. But always – in an almost sinister fashion – the government talked about money. Graduates in the old days earned more than non-graduates.  Everyone wanted more money. So let’s make everyone a graduate – bingo! More loot! Just like that! Because earn more is what graduates do. And because they will earn more for the rest of their lives, they can afford to pay for the privilege of going to university! And in a wonderfully egalitarian, not to say monopolistic, way, the universities will all charge the same fees, because to do otherwise would imply a hierarchy of universities and you can’t have that, can you?

Don’t answer that. But note that we do seem to have arrived at a place where cash is king and it’s all wonderfully Tom Cruise and showing us the money.

“It’s not really all about the money. It’s about playing to your own strengths, and fulfilling your heart’s desire.”

Or telling young people where to find it – for instance, an Imperial College London graduate is, after six months, likely to be earning £30k, whereas an Aberystwyth graduate is likely to be bringing home £16k. The dentists in the headline I quote are followed with a list of who is best paid six months after finishing their studies: chemical engineers, economists, other graduates of science and maths-related subjects. The article quotes The Times Good University Guide, which also tells us social workers get about £26k a year, and ‘Arts graduates are notorious for being badly paid.’ Apparently dance, drama, art and design, and music account for seven of the bottom 10 courses for earnings. ‘Dance, drama and cinematics graduates had the lowest median starting salary at £12,000.’

I could weep. No wonder schools are adapting to the commercial pressure.  Teach what they need – does Gradgrind come to mind? And yet, and yet… I remember a heaven-sent trip to see Cabaret at Washington’s Kennedy Centre this summer. The performance was magical and memorable, as was the building itself – I know, a grand and glorious product of the efforts of mathematicians and architects and engineers.

But never mind the performance, read the very walls of the Kennedy Centre, and you will find inspiration – and ammunition – if you want to rally to the cause of the arts, in schools, in universities, in life itself. Kennedy said, “I look forward to an America which will reward achievement in the arts as we reward achievement in business or statecraft. I look forward to an America which will steadily enlarge cultural opportunities for all our citizens…an America which commands respect throughout the world not only for its strength, but for its civilization as well.”

You see, it’s not really all about the money. It’s about playing to your own strengths, and fulfilling your heart’s desire and becoming Billy Elliott instead of Bill Gates if that is where your talent lies. It’s about the arts as well as the sciences. And in the end, it’s about civilization itself.

Are PE lessons awesome?

You can’t travel any time-distance to 2017 without being aware you have lived/are living in revolutionary times. Consider education – who could have seen its current shape and concerns 20 years ago? Which is amazing, given it’s still – presumably – trying to do much the same thing. Or not. How disheartening recently to ask a primary school teacher if she thought all her Year 6 pupils would leave in the summer, ready for secondary education, competent readers.  She said, “No.” The answer was slightly longer than that, and involved references to home, parents, the joys of reading and the difficulty of conveying these when children were more interested in their phones, and of course, the innate ability of the children at the point of admission. But it was still a no. And there was me, thinking that teaching children to read was the most important thing a primary school could do. I must be behind the curve. There has been another revolution, putting well-being before literacy. I’m a big fan of well-being, honestly, but still… I actually believe your well-being is likely to be seriously damaged if you arrive in a secondary school unable to read.

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Noteworthy

Gimme a soap box, and I will happily rant for 10 minutes about music.  Specifically, music in schools.

I owe my glancing acquaintance with playing the violin to the free instrumental lessons which were available in my grammar school in North Wales.

They took me to Grade 4 and a rather short-lived place in the county Youth Orchestra. I did not take my violin to university, and after leaving school I never played again. Occasionally friends will still say very brightly, “Oh, we made up a kind of informal quartet – you ought to join us – it’s just for fun!” And I want to run for cover. The grade and the official youth orchestra record hide a multitude of sins, in particular, the fact that I was never very good then and would not expect to be even half-way passable for any kind of musical ensemble now.

Dig a little deeper into why I considered myself useless with a fiddle and it’s a funny old story. If I wanted to play any instrument, it was  the piano. My mother was a fine pianist, in part because she spent much of her childhood ‘banished’ to a cold ‘front room’, such as houses had in her youth before the through-room revolution, and actually locked in while she practised.  Flying fingers, Grade 8, gold medals, appearances on the stage at the Guildhall in Londonderry where she grew up – the whole nine yards. And all the while hating the piano, and yearning to play the violin.

You wouldn’t credit it today, would you?  In some ways, I repeated my mother’s story: not the medals and guest appearances, but the instrument and I, alone in the front room which, in my case, was freezing.

You are not likely to study music in school, unless you are already half-way expert

The kitchen/living room heart of the house was warm and comfortable. The front room – a fire seldom lit, a room hardly used. Except for the violin practice. And that does not go well with fingers stiff with cold.

The county youth orchestra was fun – a whole new set of people – but very scary, because they could all actually play, while I felt I had just been having lessons, somewhat under duress. And why did I not persevere with the happy business of making music together instead of in the isolation of the front room? Because the county sessions were almost impossible to get to from my country home. Think Cider with Rosie but in North Wales. Getting to the county orchestra meant two buses after school – and if you could not contrive a lift home, you’d have to stay in Colwyn Bay overnight. Like that was going to happen.

All of the above may account for my lifelong resentment of the fact that music was then and remains still an elitist business. In my day, the county provided free lessons for would-be violinists, which did give access to the instrument to youngsters otherwise unable to afford instrumental tuition. But few of us grabbed the opportunity – perhaps half a dozen in a 400-strong grammar school.

Anyone taking music at (then) GCE had been having instrumental or voice lessons for years, and they were a select band (no pun intended) of musicians whose grades would have very little to do with the school, and owe a great deal to their private teachers. And they ain’t cheap – as I learned when my own children learned to play the piano and flute respectively.

For years and years. Come to think of it, it makes no sense for a school to include A-level or GCSE grades in music in its exam totals, because the school is barely responsible for the teaching. The only people likely to choose the subject are the ones who could pass the exam with hardly a school lesson at all.

There is surely no other subject in the secondary school curriculum which requires a pupil to have – literally – years of expensive private tuition before the subject can be studied to any examination level? Can you think of a greater guarantee of elitism? I am told that the powers that be in the music world wanted to keep performance as a requirement for GCSE and A-level, and they got their way. You are not likely to study music in school, unless you are already half-way expert.

One cannot help but reflect that they may have improved the chances of some people growing up to be performers on the worldwide stage, but at the same time they surely reduced the number of people ever likely to turn up at a concert to hear them. No wonder concert audiences are both dwindling and – candidly – old.

From the soap box, I’d be arguing for a whole new subject in schools: History of Music. Learn about music – how it grew, changed, developed – you know, the history of it. And learn to tell Mozart from Beethoven, and what the heck happened to 20th-century music, and what makes great film music? If the History of Art is a respectable enough subject for the future queen, why can’t we have degrees in the History of Music? In the one, you never have to lift a paint brush – you’re not an artist, you are a student of art. In the other, you wouldn’t have to be a musician, you would just appreciate music in a well-informed and educated way.

If national funding for schools reduces the number of subjects which can be taught and the numbers of staff to teach them, then music is likely to be in the firing line

My own musical education, such as it is, came entirely courtesy of Classic FM and 12 years of driving two hours a day to work. The journeys really did feel like small tutorials, and I developed an ear for composers, and even some conductors and soloists. And it felt like an education. The day my teenage son and I got in the car, turned on the radio, heard a trumpeter and I said, “Oh – you must listen to this, it’s Alison Balsom!” he was satisfyingly gob-smacked.

Meanwhile, in these stringent times, it is perhaps no wonder that music is dying on its curricular feet in state schools.

If national funding for schools reduces the number of subjects which can be taught and the numbers of staff to teach them, then music is likely to be in the firing line. STEM subjects are considered essential, the arts – of all kinds – less so in today’s hard-nosed world.

Let us hope that independent schools will keep the flame burning. You only had to watch the combined orchestras and choirs of the five Haberdashers’ schools in Monmouth, celebrating the 125th anniversary of the founding of the Haberdashers’ Monmouth School for Girls with a concert in St David’s Hall, Cardiff, to realise what a joy and a delight it can be to make great big, drum-banging, voices-soaring music together.

And am I sorry I did not persevere in the freezing front room? Of course I am.

Men do what looks like yoga in a desert
"Happiness matters. We believe it matters"

Keeping up appearances

Are schools doing enough to look after their staff?

They say that by your works shall ye be known. Actions, reportedly, speak louder than words. Don’t announce what you will do to improve things, or describe your good intentions: just do it, to coin a phrase.

So, if it is a school’s intention to do all that it can to improve the happiness of its staff and students – or are those two aims mutually exclusive? – what exactly does it do about it?  What action does it take? Or, more likely with such an ambitious aim, what actions?

The thought is prompted by a press article about a start-up firm, run by young people in their early 20s and phenomenally successful. The company is called ‘Social Chain’ and it uses social media accounts to advertise, influencing trends and buying patterns in their young devotees.  It has 100 employees, and one of these is – wait for it – the Head of Happiness.

Isn’t that wonderful? The very idea in the first place, then the appointing of the holder, and the financing of the post, which presumably has quite a budget, because this Head of Happiness organises nacho days and gin and tonic days (I know, I find it hard to imagine too), as well as mentoring staff and celebrating their birthdays and anniversaries. It’s all a very long way from what – I fear – most schools do. Which is not a lot. I admit to a shiver of recognition when I read the young boss’s opinion that many companies say that they are passionate about valuing their workforce but, in reality, that translates into a solitary suggestion box for grumbles and complaints – which, of course, may or may not produce action.

There is probably a halfway house between, ‘They always complain about that, and we’ve tried to fix it but they are never happy – next?’ and actually appointing a person, seriously, whose job is to make people happy. But there is something inherently attractive, seductive even, about a company which goes the whole hog. Happiness matters. We believe it matters. Here is what we will do to try to make people happy. Make it someone’s job. It is a real responsibility, as important in a school, perhaps, as Examinations Officer. Arguably, more important.

In these difficult times, when we read daily of headteachers leaving their posts in droves and deputies and other senior staff being reluctant to step up to the top job, we must surely question the processes by which schools aim to foster and retain talent. Taking real, identifiable action to make or keep people happy. Be prepared to report to governors: we did these things to help keep our staff happy. And we started with a happiness survey, perhaps?

Of course, the major difference between this sparky and innovative start-up company and any school is that Social Chain only has to worry about its employees. Schools need to worry about employees and pupils, which adds a layer of complication. You can bet that most schools attend very closely to pupil happiness: there has been real, positive growth in this area in recent years. Children are encouraged to consider happiness overtly and purposefully, with an expectation that whatever befalls them they can be happy, with the right mind-set, with appropriate exercise, mental and physical, and diet and company and support, including readily available professional counselling where necessary. We have come a very long way from the days of expecting a child to square up – shoulders back, stiff upper lip – to misfortune or mood, and get on with the homework. I once saw a school reluctantly appointing its first counsellor for just a couple of grudging hours a week. These days, a counsellor is likely to be one of the most valued – and busiest – members of staff. Now it is commonplace to find schools with a counsellor on tap half a week and probably wishing for more.

But the Counsellor may well be seen as a resource for students – what of staff?

The physical things are fairly simple – most of the battles for decent refreshments to be available in the staffroom are surely won. Such a trivial thing, but like a stone in a shoe, often a cause of irritation. Good coffee, fruit as well as biscuits or cake, are now commonplace. I remember days of having to bring a mug, wash it up, dry and put it away because catering staff were far too busy to cater for staff – who did they think they were, that someone should tidy up after them?

So far so good. But employing someone to remember birthdays and arrange cards and birthday bashes? Many a Head already manages a card for all members of staff, indeed, takes pride in doing so, and perhaps a member of staff would value such a card more than one provided by the person employed to do such things. Arguably, it’s the fact that the Head does remember you personally and writes the card accordingly, that adds to your happiness quotient – it suggests you matter to the Head, which is what matters. You might not care at all about being remembered by the Head of Happiness’ spreadsheet/app which keeps them up to speed with important personal dates and pokes them into action. If the truth is that the Head never did remember, but had a super PA who kept an eye on such things and presented the Head with a card – ‘sign here!’ –  well, perhaps the effect was the same. It may not have been truly personal, but it appeared so, and that was the trick of it.

Appoint someone to do the happiness bit, and what are you saying? ‘This matters so much to us, we are going to make it a real job.’ Or ‘Having someone employed to do this will make you think you matter to us and we really care about your happiness – we don’t, but we want to give the appearance of doing so.’ Tricky stuff.

The other problem, of course, is the money. The sheer hard cash in a tight economy. Techie start-ups may have the spare cash, but schools? Every penny is accounted for. But, honestly, how much was left at the end of the year? Might some of the surplus have been ploughed back into a broad-brush intention to help everyone in the school to be happier, however that might be effected? I quit one school where I taught in a temporary classroom so far flung from the main building and the cosy staffroom that I wore out wellington boots tramping through mud and grew to hate the enormous green mac I wore four or five times a day just getting to class in a dreadful winter. Happy?  I was simply livid most of the time. The creation of a new school while the old one was still in use by some 800 students and their dogged staff created an environment so dreadful that if I had received a birthday card from the Head – and I remember that I did not – I think I’d have torn it up.

And funnily enough, just doing so might have made me – for a moment – quite happy.

New directions

Who, in the name of all that’s wonderful, would choose in today’s world to be a Careers Advisor? Can you imagine a more difficult, demanding and, possibly, thankless task than that of advising anyone on how they might make a living? Even that expression, ‘make a living’, seems antique. What young person, day dreaming their future as they sit in class today, is thinking about making a living? A fortune, yes of course – preferably before the age of 25, by hook or by crook or by sheer good looks.

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