Below, my latest piece in Guardian education…..
Michael Russell, cabinet secretary for education in the SNP government, who declared himself ‘stunned’ at recently announced English plans to allow unqualified teachers into classrooms. Photograph: Murdo MacLeod
Last week, a British education minister spoke eloquently of the necessity of a highly qualified teaching profession, free university learning and the vital importance of public education as a “societal, not just an individual, good”.
No, Michael Gove has not had a radical change of heart over the summer break. The minister in question was Michael Russell, cabinet secretary for education in the SNP government. He and I were sharing a platform at a packed session at this year’s Edinburgh book festival on “the value of education”, with many cogent and passionate contributions from leading academics and educationalists.
Below a recent review of a remarkable book by a remarkable woman, that appeared in the Guardian:
If You Sit Very Still by Marian Partington
Some years ago, while making a Radio 4 series on forgiveness in private and public life, I interviewed an apple-cheeked woman of impeccable middle-class stock. Everyone who trooped through the studio had a gripping story of betrayal or violence to recount, yet, all these years later, it is Marian Partington’s authenticity and intensity that I most vividly recall.
If You Sit Very Still has taken a further decade….read on
Last month I attended a fascinating discussion about the Finnish school system by Pasi Sahlberg, author of Finnish Lessons, an account of how Finland created one of the most successful school systems in the world. In this brief extract from Pasi’s talk, he explains how, in order to create a high quality universal system, the Finns had, first, to abolish private and selective education, which created an unacceptable gap in achievement. This then prompted me to ask a question……… read on.
Over the last eight months, I have been taking the arguments in my book School Wars around the country, talking to parents, teachers, heads in maintained schools: local authority leaders; private, grammar, academy and faith school heads and staff; and many students. I have learned an enormous amount from these discussions about the strengths and divides of our current system and the impact that Coalition policy is having on our schools.
Last week the New Statesman published my edited diary style account of some of these discussions. There is so much I had to miss out…never mind. This gives readers a flavour….
I debate selection and streaming with Katherine Birbalsingh on the BBC. Listen here if you are interested. Go straight to Chapter 6.
Over the past couple of weeks i Have been reading and listening to some of the new Happiness Gurus. Last weekend The Guardian gave away Happier, a slim, aggressively yellow book by Tal Ben-Shahar ; this morning, I watched a TEDX speech on line given by an American psychologist, Shawn Anchor, who really should be – is, already – a stand up comedian, on the same subject.
What strikes me, increasingly, is how much these happiness messages run directly counter to the values, both explicit and covert, that young people are taught to hold, particularly at this rather mean spirited point in our society, and particularly within schools. These are, that results matter above all else; only A stars really count: Oxbridge or a Russell Group university are the only places worth aiming for etc
In terms of paid work, the goals are similar. What is prized? Work in some highly visible occupation such as politics, law, media or banking ( yes, even now, although, personally, I have yet to understand what any of these milk-round graduates are actually doing in these glass palaces of post crash capitalism.) And these careers are only worth something if you climb to the top. ( Who salutes a back bench MP who has campaigned hard over many decades to create a fairer society?)
Leave aside the massive issue of inequality of access to these same so called goals; is Super Achievement worth aiming for at all?
Not according to the Happiness Gurus. Ben-Shahar urges us to throw off the Rat Race mentality while Shawn Anchor claims that concern for success actually blocks productivity. (An interesting footnote: only those who have succeeded in the Rat Race can repudiate it. So Shawn Anchor’s talk carefully emphasises his Harvard career while Ben-Shahar begins his book with a story about winning a top athletics tournament as a highly driven, and unhappy, sixteen year old.)
Still, there’s a lot of sense in what they say. It is hard to learn to relish the ordinary moments of life when culture rewards only those ‘mountain top moments‘ of an extraordinary goal achieved.
But what neither the Stressed Over Achievers nor the Laid Back Happy Ones seem to address is the question of meaning. Neither seem to ask: what does happiness or achievement mean if neither are grounded in a life, or actions, based on the things that really matter: strong, honest relationships: kindness ( ‘the ruling principle of nowhere’ as the writer Jan Morris once memorably observed) and deeply held moral and political values, even those these might well lead you far from the centres of power, status or money.
A final footnote: I have long noticed that while contemporary culture rewards those who seek glory and status, history tends to reverse the equation and honour those who advocate, and uphold, justice. So, incidentally, does some of our most substantive, moving and enduring literature: cf George Eliot or Theodore Dreiser.