Two weeks in and the term seems fully under way. We had three good days at the end of the first week back exploring the mathematics of Milton Keynes 50th birthday, celebrated next Monday (23rd January). It is a period in which we will learn to give thanks for this city that hosts and blesses us, and in which many of us have come to have a role that has real impact and influence. This is also the term when I slide up to the end of my 6th year here, and that has led to some serious soul-searching about the type of education I want children to have, and how much I can provide that when what is on offer from the current curricular settlement is so poor. Because the curriculum has such low challenge, it is not a call, in and of itself, to the very best minds that we need to be able to convey the fascination of learning to – the generation who will be leading this country in 30 years time. If we were to announce a genuinely challenging, invigorating, life-affirming curriculum where the learning was both transformative and richly thought-provoking, would we not therefore get wonderfully motivated people to teach it?
I find myself hamstrung by a low-expectations curriculum in English state schooling. And what tends to hamstring learning is the breaking of the mysterious links between the delight of the content and the willingness and intellect of the teachers who have to learn it, rejoice in it and then share and teach it to children. We have largely (and I know that there are honourable exceptions) stopped teaching teachers to be culturally literate carriers of our national life, and turned them instead into highly practical people who see their worth in the quality of lessons they “deliver” and the “outcomes” that they get in class. Very few would dispute this, I think, and very few would see it as a problem, but it is. It is a problem both in the curriculum itself (the Primary Curriculum in England is a good example, as is the constrained “e-bacc ” or English Baccalaureate) because what we choose to pass on through our national life to our children through a curriculum says something powerful about our values as a society and how we see ourselves; but also it is a problem for teachers because they are so loaded down in the practical that they have very little time to grow as reflectors, philosophers and as deep thinkers. Instead, under the influence of their friends, their families, the relentless push from the political sphere and the weak curriculum, they become instead reactors. And reactors, without being reflectors, become over time, cynics.
I had a wonderful opportunity yesterday to hear Y6 children debate the reasons why Victorian families ended up in the workhouse, and it was interesting to hear their reasoning, veering as it did toward the old distinction of the deserving and the undeserving poor. It was great to hear their thinking, and to watch them see, through their reasoning, the poverty of ideas with which Victorian leaders struggled when they realised they had created an underclass as a result of their capitalist excesses. So we talked about Marx and trade unions and the ownership of the means of production; about the cooperative movement, of Fry and Rowntree and Cadbury and the Quaker solutions attempted in the 19th century. And about enclosure, which lay at the root of industrialisation and all the evils that necessarily followed. If they can see that competition leads to the creation of losers, and that that creates a social situation that needs addressing, they will have learned well, no matter what solution they debate themselves towards.