Caveat emptor. Many years ago, I bought a jacket edged with contrast piping. A tasteful cream-and-black number, like the Guinness I’d evidently imbibed in large quantities before buying it, it still hangs untouched at the back of a closet.
Perhaps I should give it an airing after all as I was, clearly, ahead of the curve. You see, where I live, pretty much every school has gone for piping in a big way. My garb was an object lesson in the madness of neutrality. The schools favour combinations of a different kind: sober dominant colours (black or grey) and contrasting trims in primary hues. The polysemic potential here is clear. “We mean business,” perhaps, “ but we know how to have fun. Sometimes.” Or “A Community of Individuality”, say. Or, maybe, “Ex Pluribus, Unus”. On which last point, have you any idea how much self-control it took to leave some of those vowels untouched? And yes, I am a poet and I do know it.
The proliferation of piping is one index of the speed at which schools are being taken over by corporate-style organisations, advocating corporate-style apparel and, possibly, corporate-style curricula. My heart sinks a bit when I see the bairns crammed into the chicken shops at 5.30pm – allowed, finally, to clock out of the overdesigned buildings in which voluntary activities are compulsorily timetabled (eh?).
But my heart sinks further when I contemplate photos of staff in the schools’ corporate-style brochures. Vitreous of gaze, they are far too often pictured in the thrall of some educational guru or other, who presides over the assembly with the charisma of a cult leader. I admit freely that I scatter dramatic licence over my posts like a guest chucking brown rice at a macrobiotic wedding; and so, at first glance, the Maharishi-Moon-Koresh parallels seem wide of the mark. However, omit the sex, drugs, weddings and death – ain’t no teacher I know that has time for any of the above – and what you’re left with is, in so many senses, surprisingly close to home.
Allow me, if you will, to elaborate. A colleague, career-shifting from something more glamorous, has been applying for a place on the Schools Direct scheme. An in-school training programme that replaced the late GTP, it’s one that has been embraced keenly by some of the larger chains of schools. Aspiring teachers learn on the job, with their pay and conditions decided by the schools; the middle-layer of oversight and regulation that universities provide for PGCE students is, thus, absent. In many cases, a trainee’s workload and accountability for results are such that they are de facto teachers, rather than students, from the outset.
Thomas, as we shall call my friend, was invited to two Schools Direct assessment days run by academy federations, significant portions of which are devoted to psychometric testing. During one of these days, Thomas was grouped with several other applicants and asked to discuss the merits of several teaching methods demonstrated in filmed lessons. The discussion was observed and analysed by federation assessors – much like the lessons themselves may have been, as they had evidently taken place in a school where classrooms had been fitted with cameras.
One of the practices, in Thomas’ view, had much to recommend it. He explained why with reference to specific details, and defended it against more critical reactions with humour and gusto. When it came to another of the methods, Thomas was as voluble in his criticism as he had been previously in his praise, his defence of his position as rigorously exemplified. He noted, from the corner of his eye, the copious note-taking of the observers, and saw it as proof of the thoroughness with which they were doing their jobs.
Only at the end of the day did Thomas realise that their records documented misgivings about him. He was not offered a training place with the academy chain, whose observers cited his criticisms of – what turned out to be – a favoured teaching style as the reason for terminating their interest. The same fate befell applicants who’d questioned the effectiveness of the other methods. It thus became clear that the candidates had only been exposed to pedagogic practices of which the organisation approved.
With about a decade of experience in academisation, the chain concerned had developed an ethos that had come to span the entire federation. In short, it knew what it liked and was looking for trainees who did the same, were willing to pretend that they did, or could be persuaded easily to do either of the above. Perhaps it is better to spare all concerned the splinters that ensue from trying to ram the wrong-shaped peg into the pre-existing hole – even more so if the peg is made from material with some resistance to being whittled or ground into shape.
However, if there’s one profession, besides the law, in which the ability to observe, critique and construct a cogent argument is essential, it’s education. Proving one’s fitness to belong by parroting party lines simply won’t do. Because, unless we, the practitioners, are critical thinkers – and are encouraged to remain so – how do we teach our students to be the same? What happens to that collective ability to sift out what’s valuable and ask some, possibly awkward, questions about the rest? Students leaving school with armfuls of qualifications, but no greater capacity for interrogative thought, have been failed by the institutions to which their intellectual development has been entrusted. We may as well have stuffed their mitts with sugary snacks: a swift and vertiginous hit, followed by the slumping realisation that the satisfaction is neither genuine nor lasting.
So I return, with circular inevitability, to where I began: uniforms. In institutions that brook no dissent, it would be more honest to expect staff to wear them too; in some that is, indeed, the direction of travel. Where it will lead is both anyone’s guess and scarily predictable. Staff who are prized for compliance, rather than competence. Biddable consumers of rhetoric and more who, in turn, become valuable – but not necessarily valued – customers. And, if we dare to look closely at the portfolios of business interests, schools whose real function is to be customers for services provided by firms in which sponsors and leaders have substantial stakeholdings. All are possible consequences. How sobering a colour is that?
But fear not: none of this is driven by anything other than philanthropy and it’s all in the best interests of the students. Honest. As any tailor can confirm, eye-catching trimmings are always the last element stitched on to the garment. Sartor resartus.