Five weeks of intensity at school have come to a screeching halt. If ever there was any evidence for OFSTED being a motor to school improvement (and I believe the evidence for this is thinnish), this would be the time to find it! However, I am not sure that they (the inspectorate) could be identified as the cause of the improvement, so much as our desire to learn from past mistakes and correct and improve on our practice for the sake of the children. I am constantly challenged and heartened by two things in particular: the attention to detail that so many teachers pay to each individual child, and the unwillingness of so many of our teachers to see them as anything else than children – not as pupils, or learners, but as children.
The obstacles to our thinking in this way – now they do come from OFSTED and the DfE, in the form of national comparisons, unrealistic targets (the expected floor standard for a school’s combined KS2 RWM percentage is currently 65%, where the national average is 61%!), the reduction of children to pieces of information, and the recent machine-generated algorithms to rate schools for OFSTED – are many. The Local Authority, shamefully, are now totally in hock to this way of thinking; we ourselves, slavishly, have to think in this way if we are to defend our school in any inspection. And it is this which has caused the damage to schools most fully. I am still not certain that I accept or respect the need for national accountability. I certainly do not accept the use of national standards to judge schools – why I don’t, I explore below – and I am certain that OFSTED should be totally abolished and replaced by a peer-to-peer local schools based means of mutual support, backed up by adequate funding to councils.
At the root of this issue is whether or not local issues have nationally-applicable solutions. Some, undoubtedly, do. The NHS, for instance, may have local variance in practice, but what works on one human body, for the most part, has an applicability to another one. The factors that cause communities to be radically different are (mostly, not totally) filtered out when you get to tissue or vascular level. However, the growth in our understanding of genetic causes of disease may again reinforce a more individual (and thus historical) understanding of health care.
In schools, it is totally different, though the government choose not to think so. Because they take an essentially industrial-pragmatic view of schools, they would say (through their well-funded lackeys, the Education Endowment Foundation) that certain things work, certain things don’t work, we should do more of a particular thing in teaching, we should no longer do some other thing, and so on. The EEF now produce spurious “toolkits” based on statistical outcomes of what does and does not apparently “work” in classes. Millions of teachers teach according to this approach. They assume (and because of the impact of industrial globalisation on the thinking of every family, through the media, through advertising, above all through the internet, they are right in their assumptions) that children – no, pupils – over the whole country are more or less the same, that they work in the same way, that their communities are of no account because schools are such an effective means of social control.
Leaders assume that what works in one school must work in another, and find, lo and behold, that often it works. The more that we can reduce children to learning units and avoid too much challenge based on the identity of local communities and their histories (which we have all now largely forgotten), the more likely that the input-output model will work. Historical factors and roots of communities are now largely reduced to being curiosities. You find remnants of their importance in older white working class communities – Peterborough brickmaking families or Chester bargemen living in the same terraces as their great grandparents did – and schools that are serving such communities are rich indeed, provided that those communities can resist the global culture and reinforce for their children what their roots are. In his wonderful account of Cumbrian sheep-farming, James Rebanks describes the complete ignorance shown by his school teacher of the life of his shepherding community, as though the reality of life in the Lakeland fells could be reduced to poems by Wordsworth.
Is there a model that might help us think more clearly, even if it is too hard at the moment to implement? I believe that the answer lies in an agrarian approach to schools, which is above all an approach of correct scale. It is (to use Wes Jackson’s term) the right “eyes-to-acres ratio.” Wendell Berry and others have argued for a long time that the main problem with the industrial economy is that it overextends itself and therefore strengthens the (chiefly urban, globalising, power-concentrating) centre at the expense of the (communal, principally rural and democratic) periphery. It does not hold valuable anything that cannot be extracted or put to use for the benefit of the centre, and pulls the means of production to the users of those products further and further away from each other; in the case of American agriculture, the agrarians’ chief concern, it has been wholly disastrous, depriving millions of a livelihood, ruining small towns and farms, and depleting communities wholesale.
This is, I think, where we are in education today in England. We have sold out to a global approach, even whilst saying that we welcome a variety of school models. This is freedom within a locked room, unfortunately.
The agrarians’ second big concern is that of place. That each place is a distinct community with distinct people and families, farmed distinctly, educated in the goodness of that place and what it has to offer. Read the following, from Wendell Berry’s essay Imagination in Place, and then substitute farms for schools, agriculture for education, field for class:
The most insistent and formidable concern of agriculture, wherever it is taken seriously, is the distinct individuality of every farm, every field on every farm, every farm family, and every creature on every farm. Farming becomes a high art when farmers know and respect in their work the distinct individuality of their place and the neighborhood of creatures that lives there. This has nothing to do with the set of personal excuses we call “individualism” but is akin to the holy charity of the gospels and the political courtesy of the Declaration of Independence and the Bill of Rights. Such practical respect is the true discipline of farming, and the farmer must maintain it through muddles, mistakes, disappointments, and frustrations, as well as the satisfactions and and exultations, of every actual year on an actual farm (p45, The Way of Ignorance, Counterpoint, Berkeley).
If one wishes to farm well, and agrarianism inclines to that wish above all, then one must submit to the unending effort to change one’s mind and ways to fit one’s farm. This is a hard education, which lasts all one’s life, never to be completed, and it almost certainly will involve mistakes… (p46, ibid.)
I think that this is very helpful. Berry has written more incisively and at greater length on aspects of place, but as a summary position that we can learn from, we could not do much better. It means that, amongst other things:
- We must regard each child as more important than “all children” (think the parable of the lost sheep)
- We must regard each child as important within their family setting, cultural loves and community history
- We must regard each school as more important than “all schools.”
- We must regard national comparisons between schools as bogus with no relevance to what is happening in each individual school.
- Schools are communities to be cared for and built towards social, personal and environmental health, and education has to take place within that treasured health-ful community.
The instinct for this among teachers is very strong, and I do wonder whether the disconnect between these urges for the individual child to flourish right here, in this set of friends, in this class, this year, and the reductionist approach of child-as-pupil or child-as-data, is not responsible for many of the mental health struggles reported increasingly by teachers.
I will write more on this (as I have already), as it has a vast amount to teach us as an approach and as a metaphor. In this I am grateful for the agrarian story that sits at the heart of our school, and invite all of us to consider it as a working model.