…to change.

by Scottish Secret Teacher

In this series of three articles, a current Scottish school teacher relates their view of the absurdity of the New Normal in the education system.

This week: Teachers and other educational professionals have now to find a way forward from this situation that has revealed the multiple failures of schooling in Scotland.

In an ideal world, a teacher gives two lessons: the lesson on skills or knowledge and the lesson on character. In my previous post, I noted there has been a slow erosion of standards over the decades in Scottish education. I think that is undeniable. What is harder to judge is whether there has been a similar crumbling of the human values and their application in Scottish teaching.

Although, under the glare of COVID hysteria, I’m tempted to say ‘Yes’, especially when you see face-covered adults, spraying manically desks and computers, whilst sanitising their hands continually with chemicals – which they don’t seem to have the wit to find out what is in them – and, of course, insisting that others do the same.

However, I have to pause and think of my own schooling. Teachers who would absent themselves in staffrooms for the majority of the period while classes went feral; teachers who gave you continual crossword puzzles, handouts or textbooks with no explanations, just work assigned, and teachers with absentee rates in double figures were the norm. I can think of only one purely professional teacher in my senior year at school i.e. he actually stayed in the classroom to teach. (Years of speaking with other people from other schools showed a relative consistency of experience across large areas of Scotland.)

Nowadays, teachers may lack the colour and learning of the Old School, but they are more professional and diligent. They are encouraged to be more empathetic and they treat pupils with far more dignity than previously (no one wants to be sued!).

Yet it is very, very clear that education, as constructed, is not working. The lesson is there to be learned and has been blatant, in my opinion, for decades.

What can an adult who questions nothing about the contradictory guidance, data and policies emanating from the government and who dons their mask readily, insisting others do the same, really have to teach a young person who is going to become an active participant in the social, economic and political processes of society? Nothing! You might say. Yes, but, they are teaching something: they are tutoring obedience, conformity, unresisting acceptance and mind-numbing acquiescence. They are showing how to compartmentalise thinking so that only what is safe can be thought or discussed. Ultimately, they are teaching the mental strategies of how to be unashamedly, unconsciously and practically afraid. It might not seem like it when you’re there. Nevertheless, that’s what it happening: it’s a slow process of osmosis.

Teachers cannot be blamed for this entirely, far from it. Parents can often be frightening and intimidating; family members can be hurtful; friends can be cruel and full of betrayal. Young people learn lessons more from these relationships than from their teachers. For the young – everyone – it is an insecure world.

If so, is our approach useful? Throughout society the narrative is focused on COPING with your weaknesses, your traumas and your disabilities. We’re medicalised and conditioned to feel that we’re weak. Peer pressure, authority and the media all drive this point home. Schools have tens of thousands of pounds thrown at the weakest learners from poor areas to gain skills that often are quickly forgotten or never-utilised. Few resources are directed at the gifted from poor areas who may one day occupy a place of influence and help those self-same communities. (There are many teachers who feel far more comfortable with ‘poor, wee souls’ than pupils who look to them with eyes hungry for learning.)

Perhaps, we should re-direct the focus to re-balance things. Education should not be about coping strategies or frightened people constantly re-assuring other frightened people that it’s ok to be frightened, feel stressed and, yes, you have a licence to moan. It should be about individuals flourishing. Without casting aside the vulnerable, it should be about high standards and accepting that those high standards do not have to be in just prescribed academic areas.

We should be more radical and conservative. Conservatively, we should realise that there is no panacea for life. Achieving things that are worthwhile takes work. Human values and conditions do not change: courage, perseverance and endurance are all hallmarks of high standards in any field. Teachers who have proved themselves in these areas are likely to be able to teach them to young people, and not just mouth these words to them in classrooms.

Radically, we should ask, do people have to learn at the same time, with the same person, everyday? Cannot young people work with adults they choose. Do they have to work proscribed hours or can they be allowed to develop some responsibiltiy? Does everything have to be done in a classroom? Does anything? Is what the local school offers the only option or can they travel to try other subjects they feel a genuine passion for? Can they mix their learning? And can their ‘progress’ and ‘grade’ be a matter for them and their family, not schools? Finally, can we let people fail. School is only a part of life. Failure at school should not determine a person’s life, neither should fear of failure.

In short, MORE FREEDOM! Much more freedom. The system of monitoring, instructing, tracking and testing has led to the curtailing and covering of the emotional soil on which grows thoughts of optimism, curiosity, ideals and dreams. We are achieving an unique double: we are using methods to raise achievement that are pruning the growth of the drives that cause achievement and develop personality, while simultaneously lowering the standards for attainment, reducing the academic development of the child and the satisfaction that comes with doing something difficult as residue. It has to change.