'Forget the bleak educational midwinter and summon the spirit of teaching'

19th December 2013 at 11:21

Bernard Trafford, head of the Newcastle upon Tyne Royal Grammar School, writes:

Listen! What do you hear? Chestnuts roasting on an open fire, sleigh bells in the snow, the clip-clop of reindeer hooves (do they clip-clop?), carol singers?

Probably not. At the end of a long, hard term, we may perceive little of that Christmas card glitter-and-tinsel feel in our world – the world of education.

Chaos looms, as ever. Facing still more savage budget cuts, schools are tightening belts, cutting subjects and teachers. Meanwhile, the National Audit Office reports hundreds of millions of pounds lost on student loans.

Opponents of free schools are making hay. Since a couple have got into trouble, the scheme’s enemies are vociferously (and erroneously) tarring all with the same brush.

But cheer up, Cinderella! Help is at hand. A network of commissars will provide structure, coherence and regional oversight of free schools. Quite how that structure fits with the autonomy and freedoms allegedly at the heart of the programme isn’t clear.

Will we end up with two parallel structures, local authorities and regional commissars’ offices performing much the same function? Like the pigs and humans in George Orwell’s Animal Farm, we might gaze, bewildered, from one to the other, unable to tell them apart.

Mr Gove is under pressure to send Ofsted into academy chains, much as it inspects local authorities at the moment. Why do I have such a powerful sense of déjà vu? Free schools deserve better. All schools deserve better.

But surely 2014 will bring clarity to exam reform? All must be revealed in the next few months: we’ll start teaching new specifications in 2015. What do you mean, fat chance? Where’s your sense of purpose and optimism?

Teaching unions, at loggerheads with government, would say optimism and sense of purpose are entirely absent; ground out of the profession by Mr Gove’s hostility and his intransigence in driving through performance-related pay.

It’s educational midwinter, then, and a bleak one at that. We teachers might have been forgiven for being reluctant to turn out to the school carol service, nativity play, pantomime or staff bash, preferring to stick a log on the fire and sip mulled wine in front of the TV.

That would be, in truth, a bit miserable. However full of conflict the political world of education is, when we see children performing, giving their all for sheer love of it and surprising themselves with what they achieve and what pleasure they give, then we begin again to recall the buzz and sheer vocation that drew us into teaching.

So I hope you managed to summon up that last remaining scrap of energy. Crawled into school, decked the hall with boughs of holly and allowed yourself to be reminded, not just of what Christmas is about, but of what the whole of education is about and why we fell into it in the first place.

And, if you have a moment, call to mind the words of the carol: “Oh hush the noise, ye men of strife: and hear the angels sing”.

A happy Christmas to all.


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