I decided in the middle of last year to stop being a classroom teacher. The job, which many people love, had stopped making me happy; it had stopped giving me the sense of satisfaction I had hoped for and, frankly, deserved given the amount of work I was putting in. At the time I couldn’t put my finger on why. The workload was high, but I wasn’t unduly stressed. I’d been doing it for 8 years and, if I wasn’t getting any quicker at planning my lessons and working out how to give feedback most effectively to my pupils, I’m pretty sure that I was getting better at it. But, after a summer off, and some time at the start of this academic year to think about things, I think I have started to understand. Teaching had stopped being satisfying for me because our education system is broken. However hard I worked as a teacher, what I was pedalling was still a handful of GCSE grades which I no longer felt were a valid currency for the children I was teaching. And, more than that, due to the bell-curve approach to allocating grades, many children are condemned to “fail” regardless of how their performance compares with that of children in any other year. This bell-curve allocation of grades, in fact our whole education system, is built on the concept of winners and losers.
The same thing goes for the idea that market forces are a sensible way to determine the success (or not) of schools. Does anyone genuinely think it’s ok, in a supposedly civilised society, for a school to fail. The notion is absurd. I suspect that there is some merit in allowing competition between businesses on the basis that it might inspire efficiencies (as opposed to just inspiring ruthlessness and corner-cutting), but I’m not an economist. The point is that the education system is not a business. It’s not ok for market-led “parental choice” to create a situation where, for most people, it’s impossible to buy a house anywhere near a “good” school, while schools elsewhere are allowed to decay, to lose.
I think that a big part of the problem is that this obsession with winning and losing reflects almost all of our society. We preserve with an antiquated adversarial legal system which prioritises “winning” the case ahead of actually finding out what really happened. We have an election system which is designed to create a Parliamentary dictatorship, regardless of the actual breakdown of votes. Only 40% of people voted for you? Never mind – you win! And you get to be in charge. Of everyone. Not only that, but once the election’s over, a huge amount of time is given over to trying to “win” exchanges at Prime Minister’s Questions as opposed to sitting down and trying to work out what to do about anything.
And, of course, Brexit. Forget the absurdity of reducing one of the most complicated and far-reaching decisions in our history to a binary, coin-toss, Yes/No lottery. The fact is that the referendum process has allowed vested extremist interests to polarise the entire debate into a slogan-shouting contest. There is no room for compromise. You’re either leave or remain, and that’s it. Sticking with two strictly defined teams is sensible when you’re playing football in the park. It’s ridiculous when you’re talking about geopolitics. But, we’re opposed with winning. Listen to Boris Johnson’s ridiculous martial language. He wants to beat the European Union. He wants to win these talks. Or he’s going to Hulk-smash them until he does win.
I think that a lot of this attitude comes down to an inaccurate understanding of the survival of the fittest. That doesn’t mean survival of the strongest, it means the survival of the entity most fit for its purpose. Survival of most adaptable. Boris Johnson seems to think that the trick is to act like a top predator, and simply overwhelm everyone else. I worry that, if he gets his way, very soon there’s going to be a very skinny, starving lion, weakly opening one eye, looking round at the carcasses surrounding it thinking, why did I eat all the wildebeest, all at the same time?
I don’t know what it will take to change this obsession for winning and losing. To the extent that I can, I’m going to try and remove myself from these pressures where it just doesn’t make sense. I mean, I’m not against winning and losing as a concept. I can get really quite cross when Viki beats me at scrabble. But education isn’t scrabble, it’s much more important than that.