The Hothouse Flowers once said something along the lines of, “There comes a time in every man’s life when he has to look back over his mistakes, misgivings, misfortunes and miss whatever her name was …” ( a bonus song https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=lQKWALX1mS8 )and a some recent exchanges and conversations tapped into some thinking I’d been doing for a while around who exactly I am and how it motivates what I do.
A while ago I came in on the tail end of a conversation (as we all seem to do) but the general gist seemed to be that Tim Taylor and Karl Bentley were talking about the preconceptions or misconceptions that we have around academics. One questioning whether such a group were in a position to advise over classroom and school practice being removed from it while the other asserted that all academics are involved in teaching of some sort and as such in tune enough to contribute.
What became very apparent and was the point where I stuck my beak in was around the idea that we are all guilty of these generalisations and in order to either make conversation continue in the simplified, restricted world of online forums or based on our own experiences/prejudices we do lump things and people together. Teachfirsters are all ego driven promotion hungry clones swapping two years in a kibbutz or building orphanages or whatever posh kids did during gap years when I finished school to take up the charitable mantle before going back to whatever it was they really wanted to do or joining think tanks to tell us all what to do. Academies are all led by evil manipulating chains who lock kids away for a couple of years to avoid them showing up on either exam or exclusion figures, while mercilessly thrashing teachers to within inches of their lives and forcing them on to their knees for PRP. Primary teachers spend their time dressing up as Dumbledore and playing with kids in their fortresses of washed out yoghurt pots and ice cream tubs. Secondary teachers are either part of this conspiracy allowing kids to self direct themselves to the employment scrapheap or forcing them in rows to do worksheet after worksheet of maths (sorry mathematics) equations. And don’t even start on free schools, the Goveian army spreading out to destabilise local areas take over abandoned department stores and bribe kids in with swanky uniforms and free ipods but no real idea about education or the local area. Blimey, nearly forgot senior leaders – the brandy swilling, cigar smoking swines who sit in their offices lighting their cubans with fivers while the oppressed classroom teachers have to arm wrestle kids at the door just to try and maintain some sense of order far away from those in charge who have no idea what it’s like to teach.
Now, as Tim pointed out in the conversation there is a grain of truth in all of these and there are real life examples of all (most?) of them but as Karl commented why do we chose to take the worst and apply it to all? Is it because it suits us? Because we are just too lazy to look deeper? Or is theres something about who we are and how we have been shaped by experience that leads us to find those examples that best fit our own outlook?
I can tell by now you’re wondering how I’m going to make this about me. Trust me I can – it’s a skill I’ve developed over years and let’s face it anyone who writes anything about anything is deep down writing about themselves.
Morrissey once said “Whatever people say I am, that’s what I am not,” and as someone that was once told by his English teacher that Oscar Wilde thrived on being misinterpreted and he thought I enjoyed it was well, Moz’s words rang true. In my career I have been told by Andrew Adonis that as a public schoolboy working in state education I was what the profession needed more of and most recently by a close friend and mentor that in my early days I was to him like a more principled Michael Gove – full of passion but a little confused as to where it should be directed. Both of these were supposed to be compliments (I think) so you can see that I’ve been a paradox even to myself for quite some time now.
Throughout my education career both as consumer and supplier (and yes I have only used those terms to enrage secret teachers who get upset about jargon) I have either been seen as one or been confronted by stereotypes and I think that it has had a massive bearing on the way I look at some things. Or at least it used to as I am trying my best to change and resist these stereotypes obscuring my view.
I have mentioned before on blogs about my going to a public, sorry Nick, independent school. I was there on a scholarship and the first day was fairly overwhelming for a little chap from Great Yarmouth; shorts and a cap, train journeys to school, changing into sandals to go inside, hymns and the Lord’s Prayer every morning. I did look fairly cute in the shorts and loved tipping my cap to all of the teachers but it didn’t stop me almost fainting in assembly on my first day. A lot of the boys there had been to prep school together as well and I clearly stood out – as was indicated by the note stating I didn’t belong there in my desk drawer within the first week. As my form teacher Mr Blake said, it was tough being bullied by smart kids. Had I stayed in my previous school it would have been getting called a wanker and slapped and left at that. A little bit of generalisation in itself I suppose and I’m pleased to say that those attitudes were very much in the minority and I had a fantastic decade there.
Every year I had to justify that scholarship in terms of academic performance so the pressure was pretty intense but I did ok with it and really enjoyed my time at school. All the while though I was conscious of some sense of difference and I suppose it’s a chip that I’ve never really got off my shoulder. Even now I find it hard to feel comfortable with the use of networks or connections that I could use to my advantage. I’m not sure where it comes from but I suppose it’s partly to do with always thinking that I had got there on merit not privilege or because it was just what people in my family did and that I’d worked hard, and my family had worked hard, for me to be there and that was where success had come from and where it should be sought in the future. To become part of the old school tie brigade would be some sort of betrayal.
Fast forward a little as Neil Hannon would say “After GCSEs, A Levels, University” and rather than a first badly paid job in advertising I’m in my NQT year and sitting in the staffroom where the member of staff who is my induction tutor is discussing independent schools and how it’s so easy there and all of the advantages that teachers and students have etc. It wasn’t that I disagreed entirely with some of what was being said but it was based on nothing but stereotype, half truths and prejudice along with a bit of self legitimising on their part about their own failings – it’s not that I’m not delivering it’s just that I don’t have this, this and this etc. My response to this person (who was responsible for making me comfortable and supporting me in my first year!) was as waspish as those I need to stop making on twitter when I said, “ Yep. My teachers actually sat my exams for me as well.”
My English teacher was right though. I still enjoy being misinterpreted and never (I suppose until now) have really felt like explaining – not legitimising or excusing but giving context – where I’m from or who I am. I can play up to any stereotype provided for me and more often than not because it’s the most fun and riles people the most I’ll go with the public schoolboy, but I’ll play lots of roles if that’s what people are looking for to give them what they need in terms of justifying their own position and avoiding the reality of any given situation. Something we all do when we need to dismiss an argument we don’t like.
In the recent past my own wilful ignorance has been directed along with others at academy chains and free schools. With no personal experience I was initially happy to subscribe to the ideas that I’ve referenced above as it suited my own moral crusade while all the time there was a little something making me wonder just how those results had improved, why there was a feeling of pride in schools that had previously been downtrodden and what was it about the ethos that was being created that led to these successes that I was missing out on. Now these things could of course have come without being part of a chain – but they hadn’t – and I still sometimes find it hard to take on face value that those involved are doing it for the sake of children when they are so secretive about how these improvements come about and seem to do rather well personally at the same time but there must be more.
My heckles were raised all the more when it started to get personal, or at least local. I know that chains and free schools are pervading every avenue but it seems that the new educational frontier (wild west?) is now coastal towns and those that previously made a name for themselves in Tower Hamlets are now preparing to rush headlong my way and seize hold of Great Yarmouth and Lowestoft and sort out all of our problems. Very generous I’m sure you’ll agree but what of us that are here already and have been working in these communities for some time now. Do you not think we might have something to offer in this revolution before the one size fits all, worked here so it must be a universal solution, panacea is pushed down the throats of us turnip growing, kipper smoking, trawler staffing locals?
Another part of my past that adds to the confusion or colourful complexion (pale, tendency for ginger sideburns and easily burnt – you’ll see why) of our Mr Goffin is my Irish ancestry. It is of course the bit that makes me so charming, a jovial drinker and all round blarney kissing superstar but it also gives me, I think, some of the passion, commitment and revolutionary spirit that makes me question and challenge before rolling over and taking whatever comes. Those who read this blog and know me professionally might be surprised at this but I can assure you (I imagine there’s about two of you) that before I come forward with ideas, initiatives and ways of working there’s plenty of debate, challenge and question to find a way that makes it work for us, in our context, to the best of our ability. Nothing happens simply!
I don’t know if these traits are genetic and have had quite enough of the debate around that (!) but somewhere down the line you’ll find a chap called Davitt in my family tree who embodied a whole number of these and ended up in the Old Bailey for his troubles (http://www.oldbaileyonline.org/browse.jsp?id=def2-602-18700711&div=t18700711-602#highlight ). Ireland has always been somewhere that’s taken advantage of and use for the benefit of whoever happens to set up there from the Vikings onwards and perhaps there’s a little bit of me that feels the same when various organisations decide that they will come and set up here and impose their sense of what we “need” around here. Who will stand up and ensure Educational Home Rule for coastal towns?
One thing I’ve always admired about the story of Michael Davitt was the way that he tried to work within the system and from that gain progress and it’s something that also resonated with me while reading a biography of Billy Bragg where Andrew Collins comments on how he always wanted to get recognition from the establishment for his viewpoints and work with the system and the structures it provides in order to get the job done. Rather than standing on the outside shouting both the politician and the folk singer sought ways to work with those they may initially oppose to find common ground, gain respect and legitimacy for their ideas and move forward for a common good more than for individual ends. As someone with “I’m Ok, You’re OK” at the top of a list of three rules for living this makes sense for me and while it’s not always easy to live by it surely it’s more helpful to us in our pursuit of a better life for all than seeking ways to negatively characterise those who seem to be different or in opposition to use and by doing so give us opportunity to negate and ignore what they have to say.
So where does that leave the crusade for coastal towns? Well one thing is certain. There is an issue. Schools seem to be falling further and further behind and the number of those in RI or worse is growing. There are complex reasons for this and while they won’t be resolved solely by parachuting in teachers, leaders or solutions from elsewhere there are benefits in working with others and we would be foolish not to look at these opportunities. At the same time though we must make sure that we are using our expertise and our voice to be part of the dialogue and part of the solution and while it’s easy to suggest that we are not listened to and this is all being imposed if we decide to sit behind our own prejudices and petty stereotypes then we aren’t engaging and are as blinkered and ignorant as we suggest is the case with those we try to condemn. Gramsci (see it’s not all pop culture references) said that to change things you need to be on the inside working out and perhaps if we want our voices to be heard we have to listen to other voices too and be prepared for dialogue rather than just be determined to have our own preconceptions reinforced and legitimised.
Lots of Love