Saturday, 15 January 2011

Shouldn't schools champion education?

Schools should be supporting their students in engaging in national protest over their educational future. Instead they are consistently, if inadvertently, suppressing mature involvement.

On a Wednesday early last December, on the eve of the tuition fees vote, students at my school finally woke up and thought it might just have something to do with them. They held an ill-organised, haphazard protest, in blunt confrontation with the school, thrown together at the last minute in the gap between periods and by constructed comically by conspiratorial breaktime text messages to meet at the bike shed, and wandered vaguely off into town with no particular purpose. At the forefront was an eclectic combination of our best and brightest mingled with a mob of what would once have been called ne’er-do-wells. A long comet tail of younger students, apparently entirely clueless about why, drifted behind. They milled around in the cold in town a bit then came back and sat in the changing rooms. Some even found out it what they were doing it for – by the end of it.

It was not, as you may have gathered, a model for either committed or politically effective protest. But since the following few days’ news coverage became a rather distasteful spectacle of watching the establishment close ranks like a phalanx, I want to challenge the thoughtless immediate tendency many people – many parents, residents of the town and teachers – have in response to such a waste of time; I want to argue that inadequacy at the first hurdle must not result in a response of impermissibility, or no learning would ever occur in young people’s lives; all learning is fledgling at the first hurdle, and so it is with this process of political learning. Schools must not, in response to events like this, merely castigate, threaten and dismiss – however badly their students’ initial attempt at political activity goes.

Let us be clear: there can be no neutrality for schools and teachers in this matter, and no position is apolitical. Schools cannot act as if these are issues that do not affect them or their students; nor that it can have no place in the school day. Schools are places of education – places building towards future education, no less – and dramatic changes to the education system as a whole (the hammering of both EMA and tuition fees) absolutely are an issue they must engage with. You cannot be a teacher or headteacher and say “This can’t happen in my school, with my students” – not if the students themselves choose to engage. To insist no protest occurs in your school is not “sticking to our core purpose” and being neutral or non-political: silence (and the forcing of mute compliance) in this case is an active political decision to limit your students’ futures. Like cancelling an option course, making staff redundant, or changing school rules, it’s an explicit choice. Unlike those choices – often driven by financial or practical constraint – this choice is not under pressure: why not allow student protest, properly managed, and thereby enhance student engagement with the educational process and their wider society? This should be a no-brainer. I discovered on Wednesday that the problem is mostly pressure against student protest from other teachers.

Teacher opinion is depressingly, although not inexplicably, divided. Educationalists they may be, but don’t forget that teachers were, in general, the quietly well-behaved children in school and are shocked at disobedience, with more teachers readers of the Mail than the Guardian – and in addition there is a strong cohort attached to the small obsession that their lesson, subject and class alone matter. This is because most are under a high-pressure and very narrow set of performance targets relating to these painfully limited aims: students are reduced to letter grades and teachers to grade-producing machines at the expense of a richer and now mostly lost conception of educational wealth. But there is also a moral pettiness to teachers not supporting these student protests, which works at the human level. Let us leave aside as evident but unproductive points the hypocrisy and selfishness of a generation who were funded to become graduates failing to actively support their successors in that same hope; despite (or perhaps because of) the raw injustice of his inequality this argument becomes rancorous and posturing on both sides pretty quickly. There is a more compelling and less political argument which teachers are neglecting to consider and which – because it is pedagogical and philosophical – goes rather more to the core of being a teacher: that everything you are doing loses its whole purpose in face of the industrial demolition of fair access higher education. What do you think they’re getting those GCSEs for? Why are you pushing so hard for their success – to hit a brick wall at the next stage?

Can it be consistent, in face of a student walkout, to say “there is no excuse for missing my history lesson – it’s the only thing you should care about” when all funding for history degrees has just been terminated? – this is exactly why students should be protesting. Can it be consistent to argue that they need to work harder for their future education prospects when the drama degree they want more than anything to do will have withered on the vine and been halted before they even sit GCSE? And this inconsistency for the sake of one or two missed lessons in your subject? How comprehensively deluded must you be about both your abilities as a teacher and your students’ lack of ability in order to believe that one lesson out of your subject will lead to them missing the grade C boundary? There is a pseudo-intellectual orthodoxy current in education which proclaims that students can never miss lessons for anything. It is this obsessive insistence that students be obedient core subject learning robots which has already hamstrung much of the sports, arts, trips, exchanges, “broadening” diverse experiences and work experience we used to value. It is a poison and continues to spread. A single event of participation in protest over a major political issue is a learning experience worth half a year of classroom learning and any educationalist who says otherwise has lost their mind. Life is bigger than multi-choice questions about osmosis.

I am disinclined to allow the opponents of protest to focus the debate on the abuse of protest. It goes without saying that vandalism is not justifiable, and that use of physical force both against and by police officers is not the aim. Focusing on that minority of events is the aim of the anti-protest establishment and we must instead focus on the majority who are interested in serious and meaningful protest; so it is with students of school age – consider those who are genuine. It should then be obvious that we need to examine, in order to dismiss, the main arguments used lazily in staff rooms and county education directorates, against the participation of school age students in this wave of protests. The laziest authoritarian argument is that the majority of those school-agers who take part don’t know what they’ve marching for. That’s true, but you don’t start a lesson with a majority knowing the topic either. Learning through doing is supposed to be cutting-edge pedagogy; and it applies here too. If they learn quite literally en route then that’s an example of exactly the “compelling learning experience” we’re told to always be creating: good learning is a journey, not a dictionary. In addition we should value the idea of students coming to care about something – enough to do something. For heaven’s sake, we spend the rest of the time moaning about the apathetic Playstation generation who don’t do anything or leave the house – how can we now as adults flip our position so hypocritically and say they shouldn’t go out and experience and experiment with these ideas and activities?

The second lazy argument of those denying students the right to protest is that the protests contain as many or more exploiting the cause to just bunk off (and, worse yet, cause serious trouble) as it does real protestors who care about the issue. This is both true and irrelevant. Protests are disparate movements by nature; there is always a (substantial) minority of morons in a protest, just as there is a minority in police ranks of thugs in uniform; this does nothing in either case to imply either that most police are unprofessional or most protestors are insincere. Protests by school students are especially likely to be ill-informed: you can’t go from zero to activist in one easy walk-out. School-age young people have no experience of organising such an event, are explicitly denied guidance to do so, and those young people most likely to understand how and why are those most likely to not wish to harm their school record in response to the threat of punishment. Yesterday at our school was a farce both from the point of view of anti-protest teachers and, more subtly, of those like myself who wish our students could organise a decent one. But they’re young, for heaven’s sake, and should be given time to work this out. Our responsibility is not to stop this to but put a moderate, thought-provoking and careful framework around their development – including the development of an ability to protest where they feel it due, as is the right of democratic citizens; our responsibility is to tolerate and ensure a reasonable level of disruption to acknowledge the validity of the cause being protested about. There is a way to breach rules and cause inconvenience in an understood manner – the corona of legality, if you like, just beyond the formal bounds of things. Better students know this rather than snap and cut straight to anonymous violence, and we should respond in a way that empowers these young people rather than the more extreme or exploitative. Education should actively foster an awareness of subtlety and these shades of grey in relations between people and power.

But as usual the most tedious of the arguments in favour of locking students into schools is the omnipresent child protection nonsense. On the messy abortive mass truant which passed for a protest at my school, quite a few did indeed just skive; the police (more calm and reasonable than a number of our teachers) quietly directed the peleton of the protest away from the train level crossing; the total “awareness-raising” the protest acheived was that three sheep and a crow in a farmer’s field they broke out of school through spotted them and watched disinterestedly. Yet multiple teachers I thought had more sense parroted a standard line about the risk to students being out of school. The numbingly screeching alarmism that surrounds all issues to which anyone wants to stick the lazy tag “child protection” suggests children must be locked in all the time. The only two other institution types which behave like this are prisons and mental institutions, which should provoke thought. The only reason the students had to go through the farmer’s field was because no fewer than eight locked gates prevent them leaving the school site during the day. The claim is that they cannot walk safely and peacefully down their own high street. Don’t be ridiculous: they walk the same route twice a day without air cover, marine support or the slightest interest on our part. It’s not Falluja, it’s a small rural town in the South-West. “Protect them” here can only be code for “suppress them.”

Why are we even discussing containment of the innocent young in such terms? This is surely a sign of how preposterous our educational system has become – how infantilising it is. And yet the curriculum itself is evidently in support of students engaging with real world topics: it explicitly instructs schools to make this a priority! The new National Curriculum has only 3 top-line aims: that young people should become Successful Learners, Confident Individuals, and Responsible Citizens. Clearly, in denying student initiative to protest over an important issue, the latter two aims are being sacrificed on the altar of the Learning obsession. (It is worth noting the irony of over-control that my own school’s internet filter blocks students and teachers from accessing the very National Curriculum document that enshrines their whole curriculum.) A wan argument is made by the never-leave-lessons junkies that “responsible” in this context means “obedient.” Even the less intellectual fourteen year-olds I teach easily and immediately sense the stench of shallowness and dishonesty in this. Clearly what responsible citizens really do is learn and know their rights; try to understand their society and the pressures changing it; they are when needed prepared to stand for their beliefs – and, if denied reasonable chance to do so, it is obviously responsible citizenship to make your point more determinedly than quietly.

For all protest involves transgression. And the greater the offence which has prompted the protest, the more moral authority lies with the protestor to make their point with a persistence, and an intrusiveness, proportionate to that offence against them – against their person, their people, or in this case their entire generation. There is a clear parallel here between the struggle at a school level and the national one. The police attempt to kettle and protestors attempt to avoid it; schools tell students not to protest and those students equally-validly refuse to adhere to this rule-for-the-sake-of-the-rule. Regardless of the as-yet-untried but perhaps pending legalities of whether kettling is an infringement of legal rights, it is evidently a moral abuse of human rights: to deny freedom of movement and deliberately inflict suffering collectively and pre-emptively cannot but be morally wrong. The same principle entitles school-age students to ignore schools’ instructions not to protest about an issue of educational importance.

This is because a protest which co-operates entirely with the authority inflicting moral offence is not weak – it is pathetic, and pointless. Those videos of university students running wildly in splinter groups through London are caused by, and not the cause of, police kettling tactics (which are long-established dirty tricks now); when effectively told “oh fine, protest – but we expect you to tell us all about it in advance and we’ll make sure your protest is completely ineffective as a result, and let you get nowhere near where you need to be”, the right response – right both as in sensible and moral – is to refuse to be so effortlessly disempowered and marginalised. Think MLK: civil protest retains at all times the moral right to refuse to co-operate with its containment; this right does not permit or excuse wanton violence against either person or property (and these actions in the recent protests I deplore and denigrate), but does include a right, in my view, to evade containment, brazenly if needed: animals being cornered are entitled to strive to remain free. It is all very well saying “use the right channels for protest”, but when they are evidently non-functional (what proportion of the electorate voted for cuts, let alone cuts of this magnitude? who voted LibDem for this? why was this not in any manifesto before the election?) then anger inevitably and appropriately spills over into extra-parliamentary methods. There is nothing wrong with protests so popularly supported attempting to prevent their limitation; by miniature parallel (forgive the pun), school-age students wishing to protest simply must leave a school site, and in lesson time. You cannot be part of a national protest movement with a co-ordinated walkout at noon... which you instead did at lunchtime or three-fifteen... and in which you only walked out as far as the field, because that’s what you were told you were allowed to do. I once listened to an Assistant Head tell my tutor group, the day after an anti-Iraq war protest which went off the school site, “It’s admirable for young people to want to rebel. But you must understand that it’s only right to rebel about the things we tell you it’s alright to rebel against.” Kids shook their heads in (unnoticed) bemusement, because only a teacher could miss the irony in that; veteran teachers often end up with skewed understandings of human relations, with an addict’s dependency on slavish systems, rules and hierarchy which seems nonsensical in a wider world. And we wonder why normal people don’t want to sit next to us at dinner parties.

To the end of trying to make protest possible, meaningful for children and positive for the school, I rushed to use every spare minute I had that Wednesday to persuade the Head that we should not adopt a reactionary, disciplinarian and knee-jerk reaction: better to engage effectively, swiftly and co-operatively: meet quickly with the main serious and interested young people and agree with them some kind of common understanding about how to empower them, discourage the pointless protestors, and lay out a protocol of co-operation. It would help those sceptical of such engagement if I report to you the comments of my bright 15 year-olds in the lesson of Wednesday afternoon, having returned after their protest (cynical colleagues may wish to reflect on the fact that they returned voluntarily to my class knowing they would be given a democratic lesson; they demanded a discussion in place of a lesson and of course I acquiesced.) I asked them a simple if extended question: what would need to be agreed between sincere year 11 protestors and a sympathetic school to make possible decent protest in a safe and fair manner? Among their proposals were: they would give advance notice of arrangements and intentions; run press releases by the school; require other students to sign up in advance; would police students collectively themselves; would be happy with a staff and / or police “shadow”, and would stay on a safe route. Perhaps most surprisingly, they insisted (despite my proposal otherwise) that they would willingly accept a proportionate punishment, agreed in advance, both to discourage those with impure motivations from participating, and to make it clear that they understood there was a cost to standing up for their beliefs. They would like the school to co-operate with them in contacting the local council and press to arrange photo-opportunities promoting any protest and would be mindful of the need to give a good impression of the school; they would be the first to inform on those misusing the protest. The two points on which they offered little movement – understandably – was that the protest had to leave the school site, and had to be at the time of unified national protests when they occurred. It is hard to see fault in the quality of their thinking or their desire to collaborate with the school while making this important protest. Can it really be wrong for students to want to do this – in this thoughtful a way? Should schools be doing anything other than supporting this mature democratic engagement? Why are students in Camden having to threaten sit-ins overnight to require their school to authorise the absences?

I won’t tell you whether or how far my own school’s headteacher met these students on this co-operative ground for, as we know, schools are obsessive about keeping things in-house and have a traditional insistence on conformity and quietism from staff. And so instead this article should serve as a wider template to teachers, governors, and especially headteachers – the real decision-makers in secondary schools – everywhere: if you find yourself in the next few months at your locked school gates, alongside police officers, telling your students not to respond to the unprecedented exploitation of their generation and to instead go back into class and copy and underline the humdrum title they’ve been given – ask yourself, is this really what you first came into education for? And if you are one of the “lucky”, with dormant and disinterested children unmotivated to action over the political issue of their young lifetimes (and, in debt, the next several decades) – what does this say about your school’s ethos of independent intellectual enquiry? What on earth have all your teachers been doing for all those lessons if young people just don’t care? Are you really happy to have done nothing and seen nothing done as we live through the dismantling of education as we have all known it? What kind of a school leader are you if you are either of these people? For there can be no neutrality in the politics of this, and there is no issue in any part of the curriculum large enough to match the learning importance of encouraging young people’s stand of principle for a justice we took for granted and should now support actively and enthusiastically. I doubt, despite the vote, that we have seen the last of these protest; and schools, like their students, should be better prepared next time – better able to act in support of their students’ protests in defence of education – for the first and great duty of all teachers, and all schools, is to champion education, to the very hilt. You want rules? That’s Rule Number One, and don’t forget it.