My wife and I go head to head debating a Nottinghamshire school who have decided to start grading their parents.
“Data” is used to justify and condemn all manner of things in education. The percentage of children achieving particular standards in particular subjects with, especially at primary level, a sharp focus on reading, writing, maths and science, is the primary measure by which we assess the success of an educational policy, institution or initiative. There are big, big questions to be asked about whether that is the most appropriate measure of school performance, and certainly we should be concerned about using it as the only measure, as happens all too often. Yet there is perhaps an even bigger problem with this situation in primary schools at present: the data is made up.
There, I said it.
Every teacher and head teacher knows it, every Ofsted inspector knows it and I think some of the students have clocked it too. It is something we dare not say for fear of exposing our own roles in this elaborate, nationwide deception but something which, as I am no longer employed as a teacher, I am at liberty to acknowledge.
It started small. During the last decade, teachers knew they were required to report children’s assessments at the age of 7 as “teacher assessments”: judgements they would make the results of tests that children could sit in small, adult-guided groups. Key Stage 2 results, on the other hand, were formed on the basis of hard test results, sat individually and in silence by eleven-year-olds in their last term at primary school, marked and moderated externally by examiners in other parts of the country to whom test scripts were sent by post. As these assessments started to be used increasingly by Ofsted inspectors, local authorities and politicians to form make-or-break judgements about schools and even individual head teachers, a sense developed in every single school I encounterred that there was a game that needed to be played. In the beginning this meant entering a pupil’s “teacher assessment” score in Year 2 very slightly higher than the staff knew was strictly accurate. They would justify it to themselves by saying things like: “I’m sure he’ll be there by the end of Year 2 in July” or “she’s had a lot to deal with at home and we need to make some allowance for that.” In time, this became more sophisticated. As primary schools came to realise they were being judged largely on the basis of pupil progress between Key Stage 1 and Key Stage 2, many schools with very successful outcomes in Year 2 actually started suppressing those assessments slightly. Show me any teacher who worked in a school with both an infant and a junior department at the time who claims they haven’t heard the words “don’t send up too many Level 3s- they’ll have to be 5s” and I’ll show you a liar. It’s worth reflecting on the fact that infant-only schools, that make all their own assessment judgements with usually relatively light-touch moderation from the local authority, are more likely to be graded “Outstanding” than any other type of school. Funny that.
There have been numerous other assessments left open to the same sort of game-playing. Science assessments at the end of Key Stage 2 have been formed by teachers without a test for well over a decade now and most Year 6 teachers I’ve ever met arrive at these simply by arbitrarily tweaking a few maths predictions. The phonics screening test in Year 1 is conducted by a teacher and a six-year-old alone in a room. I have no basis on which to question the integrity of the adults administering these tests but such a huge amount of pressure is placed on the outcomes that they will no doubt be striving to ensure every pupil can do as well as they can. It is safe to suppose that Year 1 teachers’ respective interpretations of what this means vary considerably from setting to setting. Now there are the new Year 6 writing assessments and it’s hard to know where to even start. No one can agree on what the expected standard looks like, no one can moderate them consistently and the DfE themselves don’t seem to have a clear position. What schools end up reporting is almost entirely arbitrary.
Then there are the tests themselves in Key Stage 2. Over the past six years we know huge numbers of schools have been handed over to academy chains and we know that some of these are more scrupulous than others. Given the number of financial scandals involving these groups, we know many of the people overseeing these organisations have few scruples about massaging reality when it comes to their balance sheet. How many more might be willing to bend the rules a bit when it comes to administering the tests? Once, when I was on a school trip, I heard two Year 6 teachers who worked at an academy in London discussing the publication of the mark schemes (earlier that day) for the tests Year 6 had sat nationwide the previous week. One told the other about the answer to a particular question, to which her colleague replied, “Oh good. That’s what I told them.” This struck me for two reasons. Firstly, what business have you got teaching Year 6 if you don’t know the answer to an eleven-year-old’s test question with any certainty until the mark scheme is published? Secondly, and more urgently, what could that remark mean other than that this teacher had been giving answers to her students? I’ve heard other stories from former colleagues speaking to staff in other schools. And it’s no longer just academies. This “results-at-any-cost” mentality has got into the heads of senior leaders in plenty of schools that are still under local authority control. The range of access arrangements and easily corrupted “support” in the form of “readers” on offer could very easily be abused. At most, schools will receive one monitoring visit from the local authority for an hour or two during test week, and even that only one in every three or four years. Moreover, the local authority has little incentive to identify maladministration in its jurisdiction and the negative headlines that could generate.
The data generated by these assessments is used to sack head teachers and close down schools. It is used to dispense knighthoods and £200,000-a-year consultancy jobs. Within schools, teachers’ pay is linked to the results. Every term, at pupil progress meetings, an unnatural dance takes place between the SLT and the class teachers as leaders attempt to collect the data they “need” to show school improvement, and teachers submit the data that will make their work look successful. Teachers talk about this stupid game all the time. If they believed it really meant anything, they might be more inclined to want to play it. But the real reason they despise it so much goes unsaid in public most of the time. They can all see the Emperor has no clothes. Primary school assessment data is no longer worth the paper it’s written on.
And that’s before we even ask whether we’re actually testing the right things.
Dear Brexiteers, I come in peace.
My name is Tim and I’m what you probably call a “Remoaner.” Elsewhere on this website you can see examples of the “wishy-washy liberal lefty PC claptrap” I like to spout. Whether you like it or not, there are millions of other British people who think roughly as I do. But I hope you’ll agree that if Britain is going to succeed in the future, we will all have to work together. I wanted to write to you about how we might start to do that. I’m not going to be rude and I promise I’m not going to call you racist or xenophobic; members of my own family voted to leave the EU in June and they, probably like you, are neither.
Over the past few weeks, my social media timelines have been filled with members of what the Brexit Prime Minister brands the “Sneering Liberal Elite” trying quite hard to understand the opposing side of the unfortunate divide now searing the UK into two separate and seemingly unreconcilable populations. A great deal of discussion to this end was generated by Jonathan Pie’s characteristically full-blooded rant about how he believes too many of us have resorted to simply “calling people racist” to win arguments about the political direction of the country rather than debating the issues in a grown-up way. I recommend it if you haven’t already seen it; you might enjoy it, and you’ll probably agree with more of it than you think. I concede the points he made about “safe spaces” and “trigger-warnings.” These are indeed devices used too often to silence any dissent to the liberal ideology that dominates the sorts of environments in which they’re employed, most commonly university campuses. But, in the broader context of Brexit…I honestly think we do get it.
Globalisation and advances in technology have made Britain and its European neighbours change rapidly during my lifetime. The sorts of work people do, the products you buy in shops and the way that process is organised and the way we use our leisure time are all unrecognisable compared to my mostly happy memories of 1980s Enfield. The way we access news has changed and this has enabled a wider and more nuanced range of views to form about nationally-important issues among our population. Most pertinently, a wave of immigration far more substantial than any other in recent history has resulted in the culture of the UK, a culture of which I feel very proud, becoming intertwined with (and you may feel diluted by) the cultures of many other nations around the world.
Against this backdrop, a centralising economic model has exacerbated a feeling among some voters that this process of globalisation has been to the benefit to too few. The benefits have been obvious to a majority of those who live in the behemoth of London, centres of learning and culture such as Oxford, Cambridge, Bath and Brighton, dominant regional centres like Newcastle, Manchester, Liverpool, Norwich, Bristol and Exeter and the maverick and increasingly reluctant partner that is Scotland. And yet the majority of voters in these places have been acutely aware of that very injustice, and at how unfairly our country is being governed. That is precisely why we didn’t vote for this at either of the last two general elections. We wanted action on the effects of deindustrialisation in northern villages with a proud past but uncertain future and the suppression of wages in once-peaceful Lincolnshire towns now unrecognisable to their longer-standing inhabitants. We wanted local housing to be readily-available to people who had lived in communities all their lives and wanted our public services to offer world-class opportunities to young people wherever they lived. None of what has happened over the past few years is what we voted for. And I know what you’re going to say: the Labour MPs we (apart from Scotland) did tend to elect incubated these problems while in government and, in opposition, have been completely ineffective at articulating a convincing, inspiring alternative. I completely agree. And I’m sorry about that.
And that, more or less, is how we got here, right? All of us, you and me both, have seen our hopes and aspirations for our country dashed by a system that seems to have completely run out of ideas.
But please, as we try to understand you, you must do the same. If Britain is going to succeed outside the European Union, it must be more united than it is at present. And you need to realise that we aren’t just throwing our toys out of the pram because we lost, and we aren’t just blind to the challenges of globalisation. What we are is scared. In fact, we’re actually bloody terrified.
A friend of mine not prone to exaggeration recently told me he might have seriously reconsidered having children if he’d realised the events that 2016 would bring. If the UK is going to have a future and if its two divided factions are ever going to be able to work together again, you are going to have to understand why the decision you made has left us feel such despair, not just for ourselves in our liberal or left-wing bubble, but for everyone in the UK if not the entire western world.
If I have children, they will no longer be allowed to study at continental universities or to move to other European countries without work permits, the terms of which have yet to be decided. However unimportant you think those rights are, you have taken them away from me and my descendants and I feel entitled to ask what you think you’re getting in return. The government itself seems to have no plan whatsoever and most of the promises Leave campaigners made during the referendum already seem to have been broken. The “TTIP on steroids” we can imagine disgraced former defence minister Liam Fox negotiating with Donald Trump’s “government” hardly seems appealing and the talk of ripping up the Human Rights Act seems like something from the Star Wars prequels. The unrest and increase in racially-aggravated violence on our streets since the Referendum suggests that the immediate effect on our social cohesion is concerning, if not quite as concerning as the plight of our currency.
Then there are the historical portents. I have become increasingly sceptical about the way World War II is used as the “Creation Myth of Modern Britain” but it is relevant here. We know from what happened in other parts of Europe in the 1930s that a seemingly-healthy democracy can collapse into tyranny and oppression terrifyingly quickly. Last week we honoured those who gave their lives to protect not just the UK but the whole World from fascism. For over a year three quarters of a century ago, our island stood alone as the jack boot trampled all over the face of Europe. One of the ways in which we express our debt to those who stood against those forces must surely be constant vigilance about the circumstances that give rise to them. Maybe for you, that means ensuring Germany can’t dominate Europe again, as I guess they do somewhat through the structures of the EU, but this is to miss the point. Germany, like so many of our continental cousins, had the opportunity in 1945 to completely reimagine its constitution and establish systems of proportional democracy that are far more representative and more conducive to long-term, pragmatic governance than our own.
Surely we understood that it would not come in fancy dress, stating all its own implications from the start? Clearly, it would come, just like last time, as a slightly embittered attempt to sell a pipe-dream of a better future to people based on very little but division and scapegoating. In the end, it would come as a charming chap in a nice suit having a pint down the pub. But Nigel Farage is selling you snake oil. He won’t give you jobs or houses or higher wages. To us, it feels as though he’s using you to advance the agenda he’s been peddling since he was at school. The vicious way he, and his allies in the right-wing press have campaigned against the independence of the judiciary recently is truly worrying, and coupled with Farage’s ambiguous statements about a violent uprising by those who share his right-wing views, it gives us legitimate reason to ask how much more of our country’s unwritten constitution might get swept up in this populist howl of rage.
So if I’m worried about democracy, you say, how can I defend the EU? The narrative about a corrupt, anti-democratic EU establishment is irresistible in the UK. And it is made all the more compelling by the fact that it is, I freely concede, partly true. The aims of the EU are unprecedented in their scale. 28 countries, all with their own priorities, ambitions and internal disagreements just as vibrant and complex as ours, attempting to collaborate and agree a shared vision. Yes, in the post-imperial age, it is an attempt to collectively act as a super-power to rival America, Russia and China just as Churchill himself wanted. This isn’t shameful for Britain and the other great imperial powers of two hundred years ago. It isn’t, as someone I know put it (very evocatively I thought), a case of several people who each used to have their own suite now being made to share a room. It’s the people of Europe doing what we should have been doing all along: showing moral leadership to the world on human rights and cross-border cooperation. What you call “creeping federalism”, I call a noble and necessary evolution. Idealistic, unachievable claptrap you say? Idealistic yes, but unachievable no. Of course the EU is going through a bit of turmoil but did we ever think it was going to be easy? We understand the need to ride the ups and downs in our own country’s history without opting out of the whole project of a united Britain. Why take a different attitude to our continent? The irony is that the rise of similar movements in almost every other European country (Le Pen, Wilders et al) shows just how similar we all are. And we who voted to remain dared to dream that all those magnificent European nations could solve Europe’s problems together. Hopefully they still will, but we’ll no longer be at the party.
And those problems always seemed overstated anyway. The democratic procedures of the European Council are clearly far from perfect and I don’t for a moment deny that they could be improved considerably. But to suggest that the people at the top of the EU are ultimately self-appointed and unaccountable is simply false. Those procedures are complex, yes, and that in itself is unhelpful in transparency terms, but the procedures are there if you look them up.
We are told repeatedly about oppressive EU laws we are “forced to obey.” And yet those who advocate Brexit seem unable to produce many, if any, concrete examples of what these are or how they affect our lives. The Leave Campaign’s lead spokesperson Boris Johnson was once paid to make up such stories about the EU for the Telegraph that would infuriate their readers into buying the paper again for more of the same. Actual fact-checked examples? Look around you. Honestly, where are they?
You ask us to get over it and just get on board. Why? This isn’t what we want and you haven’t explained a single benefit of it. You ask us to trust you. How? Your leaders lied repeatedly from the start and it seems safe to assume they’re still lying now. You ask us to stop scaremongering. Being genuinely frightened about the direction you are taking us in, what else do you expect us to do? Even leaving the country is becoming a less viable option until we know more about what sort of free movement, if any, will be possible for those willing to work or study in another EU member states after we’ve left.
Maybe I’m wrong about all this. But maybe you are too. In fact, isn’t it probably most likely that we’re both right about some bits and wrong about others? We’re trying to understand you, we really are. I want a bright future for the UK just as much as you do and I want us to work together to achieve it, but if your Brexit is going to be a success, you are going to have to try in an open-minded and intellectually honest way, to understand us too.
One of the strangest spectacles of the past few months has been seeing the Prime Minister of the UK praising the “patriotism” of people who clearly despise modern Britain. Those of us who were proud of the tolerant, forward-looking country that Britain presented itself as in the 2012 Olympic Opening Ceremony voted to express our confidence in the new, dynamic post-imperial country Britain had become over the last few decades. This included 75% of young voters who, despite facing far greater economic challenges than some older groups faced at the same age, nonetheless felt optimistic about the UK, its place in the world and its relationship with Europe. We, the 48% of the electorate who voted to remain, are having our citizenship as we have come to understand it taken away from us by people who hate this country and want to turn it into something else.
Today the Daily Mail published a front page in which it depicted the three judges who, yesterday, ruled that parliament is sovereign and that the Brexit process required proper democratic scrutiny under the headline: “Enemies of the People.” This has been the strategy of dictators and tyrants since Ancient Rome: depict “the people” as a homogeneous mass of quasi-individuals who agree with the autocratic ruler and then use that characterisation to paint democratic opposition as itself anti-democratic. It’s chillingly clever and even worse, it’s often been very effective. The three judges as well as the claimants involved in that case have all been subjected to large numbers of rape and death threats online. It really feels as though the gutter press have moved on from exerting excessive influence over the national agenda to actually attempting a full-blown coup.
It also demonstrates that all the guff about “sovereignty” and giving back decisions to “British courts” we heard during the referendum campaign was what many “Remainers” always said it was: a smokescreen. After the way the majority of the Brexit movement’s prominent figures have reacted to a British court ruling that the sovereignty of the British Parliament must be respected, the real agenda here is now quite clear: this is all exactly what it always appeared to be- a bigoted campaign by frightened people to close Britain off from the world and turn the clock back, crushing any dissenting voices along the way.
I recently spent a fortnight travelling across Russia and it struck me that a similar attitude prevails there in many ways: very little immigration, an inflated sense of national importance (and an accompanying suspicion of foreigners), a rejection of most foreign products and innovations (hence many of their administrative and commercial systems are clunky and inefficient and the food is shit) and a crude binary majoritarianism in their political culture that allows Putin’s government to reign supreme and crush the opposition (who should stop being such cry babies- you lost; get over it!)
Russia also, famously, has a lot of space. The Brexiteers don’t want to live in a modern country that enjoys the benefits of globalisation and they find Europe’s compromise rather than confrontation-driven democratic structures alienating. Now we learn they also think it’s unpatriotic to hand sovereignty to a parliamentary system in which the executive must answer to its opponents.
The solution is simple. Brexit Britain already exists; if it’s what you want, just go and live in Russia. And leave those of us who actually quite like modern Britain in peace.
People on the left and centre-left of the political spectrum spend a great deal of time and energy critiquing the methods those on the right use to manufacture consent for their ideology through the media. If we think we know so much about how it’s done, why do we struggle to do it ourselves?
One of the recurring themes of the Labour leadership election that has just concluded was “media bias.” Supporters of Jeremy Corbyn continually expressed outrage throughout the campaign at the “MSM” (mainstream media) and what they perceived as unacceptable media bias against their hero both from sources they might once have considered neutral such as the BBC or the Independent and from sources that are generally considered left-leaning such as the Guardian, the Mirror and Channel 4. Corbyn’s detractors within the party, meanwhile, drew regular attention to the forces of the right-wing press (the right-wing national newspapers, Sky News and ITV and London’s Evening Standard) and the need for the Labour leader to deal effectively with the vitriol they so often seem to unleash on the party at election time.
As Labour struggles to reunite after a bruising and divisive contest, this has all led me to ponder just how biased the UKs media really is and what, if anything, can be done about it?
First, let’s consider those well-known newspapers we associate with the political right. The Times, the Telegraph, the Mail, the Sun and the Express (as well as their Sunday counterparts and the Metro) are all owned by a group of five white male billionaires with right-wing views: Rupert Murdoch, Paul Dacre, Richard Desmond and the Barclay Brothers. To have amassed the fortunes they have, these men have had to ensure their publications appeal to a wide audience and reach many millions of customers and this has enabled them to drip their own views into the national conversation along the way. This was particularly evident on their front pages the day before the general election last year.
To what extent these exercises in (what one could be forgiven for calling) propaganda actually succeed in influencing voters is unclear. It is quite possible that these newspapers are simply meeting a demand that exists independent of themselves for the sort of content they offer. But their role in reinforcing negative attitudes towards immigrants, women, benefit-claimants and our European neighbours seems unhelpful at best and downright malevolent at worst. So one is forced to ask why these titles dominate the print media. 1.8 million people buy the Sun on an average day and 1.6 million buy the Mail, compared to just 164,000 who buy the Guardian and 55,000 who buy the Independent. Left-of-centre doesn’t sell.
One response to this is to insist that many more people, especially younger people, access news online rather than in newspapers and this is often accompanied by an assumption that this format provides greater balance, or even a left-wing emphasis. It is far from clear that this is the case. Unsurprisingly, the BBC website is the most popular new website in the UK but it’s closely followed by the Mail Online in second. Over the course of the last few months a website called “The Canary” has risen to prominence, setting itself up as a sort of left-wing Click-Bait answer to the Daily Express: alarmist headlines and unsubstantiated conspiracy theories designed to enrage potential readers into clicking on its links. Nothing sells like hate but there is no sign that the Canary is gaining any traction outside of the small group of uncompromising left-wingers it initially targeted. And for every one of them, there are three right-wing extremists getting their news from similar sites at the other end of the political spectrum such as the odious Breitbart News Network. The idea that the media will start to generate less heat and more light with the growth of websites like these strikes me as seriously questionable. Instead, I fear there is a risk that many people are able to cut themselves off altogether from content that challenges their existing worldview and, by sharing article after article saying the same thing over and over again with like-minded people, they are creating dangerously isolated pockets of groupthink. They start out by clicking on links which chime with an initially sensible and understandable point of view, and end up believing that Sadiq Khan is secretly working for ISIS or that Angela Eagle is conspiring with MI5 to kidnap John McDonnell’s hamster.
So what about good old “Auntie” then? For a long time, voices on the right have decried the supposed left-wing bias at the BBC caused by its tendency to employ “metropolitan liberals” (people who live in cities and don’t hate Muslims and gay people) as journalists. During one of the election debates last year Nigel Farage criticised the audience as “extraordinary even by the left-wing standards of the BBC” when they dared to voice their disagreement with what he was saying. This is a common complaint among UKIP supporters and more hard-line Conservatives: that the BBC is overrun with woolly lefty bleeding-heart liberal types like…well, a bit like me, I suppose. However, in recent months, many on the left, especially Jeremy Corbyn’s adoring fans, have been routinely levelling the opposite criticism: that the BBC is beset by right-wing bias. Much of this criticism has been bizarrely focussed quite specifically at the BBC’s political editor Laura Kuenssberg, but it has also been applied to issues like the choice of guests on Newsnight and the decision about how high a profile particular stories get in the TV news headlines and on the coporation’s website.
The BBC seems to take something of a lead from the print press in terms of what it deems newsworthy; the Andrew Marr Show begins each week with a paper review in which journalists and politicians talk through the day’s front pages and a similar review is broadcast every evening on the news channel. This procedure, overseen by those “metropolitan liberal” editors, leads me to suspect that, if the accusations of bias coming from both left and right tell us anything, it’s that the BBC is as close to neutrality as is possible given the range of views the British public hold.
So, with a largely neutral BBC, a print press that is skewed heavily to the right and now an online realm that includes a range of different echo-chambers, many of them entrenching quite extreme and uncompromising views, it is very difficult for the Labour Party to make itself heard by the majority of the electorate. How, if at all, can it address this challenge?
During New Labour’s pre-9/11 heyday, a highly disciplined and meticulously organised media operation led by Alistair Campbell was used to force the party’s message out despite press hostility, Tony Blair flattered and indulged Rupert Murdoch in a bid to lessen that hostility and the entire party became a well-oiled spin machine: messages were focus-grouped, soundbites were field-tested and MPs thoroughly briefed on the party line before any interaction with the media could take place. Voters think they want honest, genuine, heartfelt politicians. But the politicians who have won any sort of significant election in Britain in the last twenty years have been those best able to emulate Campbell’s spin machine.
The rise of Jeremy Corbyn has, in many ways, been a reaction against New Labour’s mistakes and, while I sided against him during this leadership election, I have also been frustrated with the stubborness and utter lack of contrition on the part of Tony Blair’s most vocal advocates, not just about Iraq but also about Labour policies that ended up laying the groundwork for the worst excesses of this Tory governent (such as PFI in the NHS and aspects of its academies programme.) Unfortunately, Corbyn’s devoted followers have responded to this impasse by dismissing everything that happened during those years and so the very idea of a competent media operation has come to be regarded as some sort of “Red Tory” sell-out as bad as any other.
This is a dangerous and misleading attitude and it has to be challenged. Jeremy Corbyn has won two leadership elections. I voted for him (reluctantly) the first time round but several issues (including his handling of the antisemitism row, numerous PR blunders and his frankly duplicitous attitude to the EU referendum) rendered me unable to vote for him again in good conscience. Nonetheless, he is the leader and unless we are going to leave the Tories completely unopposed those of us who didn’t support him this time have no choice but to try and unite around him. However, unless he and his supporters can accept the need for a coherent media strategy, no amount of unity will make any difference to the scale of the electoral catastrophe towards which the party is hurtling. Timing announcements to maximise press coverage isn’t selling out- it’s a way to use the media to your advantage. Briefing your shadow ministers thoroughly before they go into interviews isn’t “Blairite”- it’s just a sensible precaution.
Labour aren’t going to win an election on Twitter, nor by relying on the popularity of obscure online publications peddling empty outrage. To change the country, a party must win an election in the country as it was before that change, not after. Most voters don’t follow the intricacies of politics between elections. They tune in and make a gut reaction on the basis of the narratives they see playing out on the BBC and in the newspapers. For as long as we allow the Tories to control those narratives, we allow them to control the country and, by extension, our own lives.
There is bias in our media and it presents Labour with a problem. It needn’t be an insurmountable one but it won’t be solved by simply ignoring it, shouting “MSM bias” and hoping it goes it away. We must face up to it, own it and undertake the painstaking work of turning it to our advantage.
It’s the second week of the Autumn Term. Many teachers’ positive attitudes towards the new school year are no doubt being challenged for the first time since the restart. Perhaps you’re one of them. Perhaps the first onerous and nonsensical diktat has come through from your SLT or academy trust. Perhaps you’re starting to wonder if you are going to be able to build a special bond with Pocahontas-Marie after all, or maybe she’s going to make life as miserable for you as she did for Ms. Jenkins when she was in Year 3. Maybe, after six weeks of careful if subconscious rose-tinting, the reality of the state of the professions has simply dawned on you anew and your thoughts return to that question you’ve come back to so many times in the past: “what else could I do?”
At this point a full disclosure is required. Right now, I am sitting next to an ocean-fed volcanic pool in the beautiful garden of the villa in Hawaii where, for the next two weeks, my wife and I are enjoying our honeymoon. Until 7 weeks ago both of us were senior leaders in London primary schools with significant challenges. At the moment our only challenges are avoiding the mosquitoes and the risk of sunburn that comes with the tropical Polynesian climate. For several reasons (outlined here and here) we took the decision last year to quit our jobs and travel the world. We both have bits and bobs of paid work lined up for the year ahead but it’s not enough to live on and for the moment we’re relying on savings, wedding gifts and the rental income from our flat in North London. From our travels, we’re seeking escape and adventure but also a bit of time for reflection. When the money has run out, what should we do next? Before we committed to this decision I worried that this question might niggle at us like a loud ticking clock but, the more I’ve thought about it, the more confident I’ve become that what we face is an exciting choice, not an intimidating deadline.
I don’t want to talk other teachers into leaving the profession, but I also don’t want children in our schools taught by people who only carry on doing it because they can’t think what else they could do with their lives. If that’s you, I want to offer you some reassurance. You couldn’t quit teaching tomorrow and become a heart surgeon or a premier league footballer but, with the skills you have, the majority of jobs out there are yours to choose from. That’s why I’ve compiled this list of seven transferable skills a person gains from a career in teaching.
1.) Project Management.
Many people who think they do demanding project management jobs have never organised a school trip. If you can arrange a visit for a day (or several days) for a group of children and ensure they are all safe, supervised and benefitting educationally from the experience, then there are a whole host of other initiatives you would be capable of organising: conferences, entertainment events, holidays, weddings, training sessions and corporate away days. Project managers are required in many different sectors and no one manages a project as thoroughly or as meticulously as a teacher. And managing a project involving a group of adults who are unlikely to try and escape or wee in the plant pots? Easy.
2.) A Rhino’s Skin
Whether it’s receiving feedback after lesson observations, responding to candid remarks from your students or conversing with that parent through gritted teeth, one thing you need to survive as a teacher is a thick skin. If you’ve lasted more than a couple of years in the profession it means you’ve succeeded in dealing calmly and professionally with levels of personal criticism unheard of in most walks of life. If you decide on a career in the hospitality or retail sectors, no customer will ever say anything to you quite as cutting as the remark about your hair that boy in Year 6 made that time. And if you go into politics, no room of angry voters will ever be quite as hostile as a room full of parents who want to pick apart the new homework policy you’re seeking to introduce to your school.
3.) Dealing with Pressure
Imagine this: a job where you’re set targets that you can meet if you do enough of a certain thing. Guess what? That’s most jobs. The targets teachers are set in their annual appraisal tend to relate to the progress of specific groups of children (often measured in extraordinarily bogus and outlandish ways and which may not be achievable no matter what the teacher does.) If your job is to plant shrubs, your targets will relate to how many shrubs you planted. If your job is to fix washing machines, your targets will relate to how many washing machines you fix. Even if you work is another area where meeting targets depends on other people, like sales, you’re unlikely to come across a target quite as absurd as when you “agreed” that 90% of that class would achieve age-related expectations in maths by the end of the year, despite the fact a third of them couldn’t read well enough to access the test paper, four of them spoke no English and one of them just spent the entire year rocking back and forth on his chair and quietly repeating the word “moist” whatever you said. Lots of jobs have their pressures but few compare to those you find in the classroom.
4.) Presentational Skills
Kind of obvious but this is something that normal people stay up all night worrying about. All teachers are used to standing up in front of groups of children to convey information or explain concepts. Most also have at least some experience doing this in front of groups of adults during INSET sessions. Doing what many people anxiously call a “presentation” is this: teaching a lesson to a room full of people who already understand quite a lot of the subject matter, who are themselves held responsible for ensuring they understand it and who all, to some degree or another, actually chose to be there.
5.) Influence and Authority
You remember all that time you spent building a rapport with that challenging kid? Let’s call him Edward. You remember how, over time, you learnt what made Edward tick and what would make him kick off? You remember how, in the end, you had him more or less doing what you expected of him? Right, now imagine doing all of that with someone you or someone senior to you chose to employ knowing that, in the end, if they didn’t fall in line they’d be fired. People make millions writing books about influence and authority full of content most teachers learnt in their first term. If you can teach, you can manage and you can lead. Of course you’ll need to think about how to package that message at interviews as many of those on the panel at an interview for another management job would like to imagine that what they do is harder than teaching (don’t correct them until you’ve signed the contract.)
6.) Numbers and statistics
This has become an increasingly important part of the British education system as a succession of governments have sought to replace children with numbers. Particularly if you have held an SLT or higher-ranking middle leadership position in a school, dealing with data, statistics and EXCEL spreadsheets is likely to have been a significant part of your role. Imagine if you took all those skills you’ve applied to school assessment data in the past and applied them to something that actually meant something? Those skills could be put to good to use almost anywhere, from scientific research to accounting to charitable fundraising.
7.) A Growth Mindset
This is the big one. If I learnt anything from being a teacher it’s that what determines our success as learners, more than anything else, is our attitude. Aptitude exists too (It would take more years of practice than a human lifespan to make my tennis-playing ability as good as my knowledge of British history, for example, and I know people for whom the reverse would be true) but, all too often, the biggest stumbling block I encountered to children’s progress throughout my teaching career was what Carol Dweck would call a “fixed minset.” Our society celebrates and encourages the view that certain types of people are only inherently good at certain things. I’ve spent the last few years trying to challenge this assumption in my students; I’m going to spend the next couple of years challenging it in myself. A plumber is somebody who learnt to plumb, a surveyor is somebody who learnt to survey and the conductor of an orchestra is someone who learnt to conduct. Investment bankers like to boast of their talents to justify both their existence and their salaries, but all of them are merely people who learnt a particular set of skills that almost anyone could have learnt given the time to do so. Some jobs include skills that take many years to learn while some take only one or even less. You could choose one, put aside a few hours a week, and start now.
If you’re a teacher now and have been for a long time, you will probably never be an Olympic gymnast or an astronaut, but the list of options blocked off for you is absolutely dwarfed by the list of other paths still waiting to be explored. Your career as a teacher hasn’t closed doors. It’s opened more than you realise.