I’ve had more time to read recently, so I’ve been reading Bullshit Jobs: A Theory by David Graeber. You see, supply teaching in rural Essex can be hard to come by at this time of year, and all the more so given the parlous state of school budgets. Of late, I’ve found myself being offered a cut of as much as 25 per cent in my daily rate to go into schools as a "cover supervisor". Yet, to all intents and purposes, it is the same job.
It could be argued that the expectation of me is lower, but in many places I’d have to turn up in my jeans, without a DBS and smelling of alcohol for that to be true. What makes me a good teacher isn’t a school’s expectations of me, but my expectations of myself. To value me at 25 per cent less than when I started this gig five years ago (given how much poorer I already am by sheer toll of inflation), is injurious. To ask me to drop my expectations of myself is insulting. I call bullshit.
So I turn down "cover supervisor" postings. I don’t have that luxury, but I refuse to compromise my principles. Whether the wheeze is one devised by the schools, the agency itself, or simply a result of market forces is immaterial in the end. If somebody else wants to sell their labour at that price they’re welcome to it, even if I suspect that they’re helping the market along on its downward trend. It would take schools (some do their best), agencies, or – heaven forfend! – unions and legislation to halt it.
I try to make up for the financial loss in other ways. I write about education for this noble publication, for example. This week, I cleaned my mother-in-law’s patio and sorted her garden. A bullshit job if ever there was one, right? I mean, she clearly made that up as a way to justify palming me some cash.
There might be some truth in that, but it isn’t the whole truth. She’s just moved in and the house is a big project. She wants to feel she is making some progress, and a face-lift to the garden is perhaps the least of it, but it matters to her. From my perspective, she could probably have just given me the money for nothing, but I’d have felt guilty (and she knows that). From a social perspective, we could both have sat in our own homes, lonely, but instead we spent the day together. Good for us. Good for our relationship. I suspect even good for my marriage in intangible ways. Being a low-earner isn’t without its pressures, after all.
The reason I accept those pressures – and, to be entirely candid, inflict them on my family – is that I have made the mistake before of working against my own principles and my sense of self-worth, and it destroyed me. What it inflicted on those I love is far worse than living to (much) tighter means.
But the reason I haven’t walked away from education – yet – is that I love teaching. It is not – yet – a bullshit job.
And the reason I’m writing this piece is that we need to wake up to the fact that day by day it is being bullshitised.
What have you done today because you were asked to – or told – knowing it provided no educational value? What have you done this week– or had done to you – that has made you feel under-valued or distrusted? What would you have chosen to do otherwise? Why didn’t you?
Inputting bullshit data into bullshit spreadsheets?
Performing for a bullshit observation and getting bullshit feedback? Or worse, getting bullshit learning-walked and getting none?
Filing bullshit lesson plans on bullshit whole-school templates?
Accounting for bullshit Pupil Premium activity to please the bean counters?
Perhaps you were the one compiling the data, carrying out the bullshit observation cycle or enforcing the bullshit SOPs?
The list of bullshit designed to satisfy our voracious culture of distrust is endless: monitoring use of PPA, policing coloured markings and/or use of feedback stickers, re-inventing resources to please management rather than students, filling in triplicate documentation on paper or in SIMS or both to validate to every stakeholder the decision to set a detention, branding displays for the sake of external visitors…
And when you simply can’t blame teachers anymore, when none of this bullshit fertilises a damned thing, you change the personnel, the policies and proformas and start again.
And when you can’t take the bullshit anymore, you leave teaching.
The bullshit isn’t limited to teaching. It pervades the education system.
There’s the bullshit that comes with PFI: the site manager who won’t come to release a panicking student from a toilet cubicle because the subcontractor insists unloading a delivery must take priority over everything, the IT guy who won’t get your laptop to talk to the projector because you have to log the job with his employer in Sweden and wait until your job number comes up. Both drive nicer cars than the teachers.
There’s the bullshit consultants of every kind: Ofsted consultants, leadership consultants, a soon-to-arise army of curriculum consultants. Consultants to run your extra revision sessions and consultants to deliver your staff CPD.
So when Damian Hinds says there’s very little he can really do about workload, I call bullshit.
His department is the fountainhead of the bullshit cascade drowning our schools. If you’re one of the lucky ones not suffocated by the smell, enjoy the clean air and take care you don’t get thrown. Chances are, you’re only riding the bull.
Blaming the previous government? Bullshit. They’ve had 8 years at it.
Blaming academics? Bullshit. As if schools are free to choose who to listen to.
Blaming Ofsted? Bullshit. The power to truly reform them is legislative power. No change of inspection framework can alter the corrupt and corrupting core of it.
Blaming school leaders? Bullshit. In an academised system, more and more of them are accountable directly to the DfE.
Blaming student behaviour? Bullshit. If we spent less time justifying our existence, we might have more time to prevent behaviours manifesting.
But I don’t blame Mr Hinds. The very idea that he can be held responsible for the nation’s academic performance is bullshit. You know it. I know it. He knows it. The difference is that I’ve made sacrifices I can’t afford so that I can call out that bullshit. So far, he hasn’t.
No, I don’t blame him for the bullshit system he’s inherited, but I will blame him if it’s the same system he bequeaths to his inevitable successor.
What makes us good teachers isn’t the school’s or the system’s expectations of us. It is our expectations of ourselves.
The value we provide is in the classroom, in our collaborations with colleagues, and in what we do for our students and communities. It will never be on the lesson plan, in our performance management, or in justifying ourselves to superiors.
We all have our DBS certificates. It’s high time we de-bullshited our education system. And Damian Hinds and his ilk had better muck in, lest they finally convince us that being a politician is the ultimate bullshit job, and the only non-bullshit job left in education is supply teaching.
JL Dutaut is a teacher of politics and citizenship and co-editor of Flip the system UK: a teachers’ manifesto, published by Routledge