Perhaps we should scream. Before it's too late

11th March 2011 at 00:00

In one of his most vicious and disturbing works, poet Philip Larkin looks through terror-stricken eyes at "The Old Fools" - those infirm and demented elderly relatives sitting in institutional high-backed chairs, reeking of urine, mouths lolling open, and undergoing a "whole hideous inverted childhood". Needless to say, it is a picture of utter degradation. This, the poet suggests, is where we are all heading - to some ghastly final staging-post before extinction.

Larkin asks a question of The Old Fools which keeps drifting through my mind as I watch the current educational juggernaut hurtle madly onwards: "Why aren't they screaming?" There they sit, he says, death looming over them. Why aren't they screaming at the sheer horror of it all?

But then, why aren't we screaming too as, bit by bit, so much of what we have developed together over recent years is dismissed or rubbished.

Educational thinker Matthew Arnold described teachers as "preachers of culture": the ones who would liberate the masses, lifting them from their materialist obsessions and narrow horizons, and showing them the world afresh - through art and music and a broad-based liberal education. For Arnold, education would change the world.

It is with similarly grand ideals that many of us chose to become teachers and, in particular, teachers in the state sector. I remember a genuine sense of wanting to pass on the good fortune I had experienced - a house full of books, a librarian father, theatre trips to Stratford-upon-Avon - to the gnarled adolescents of Leicester and Leeds. It is why, as fledgling teachers, we would rather run a school trip than attend another meeting or write a lesson plan. It is how a generation of us cut our educational teeth and why my greatest pride now is to hear that students I once taught are themselves becoming teachers and school leaders.

It is just that it doesn't feel like an age of idealism any more. For me, more than 25 years on, it feels either as if I have been consigned to the naughty step or, on bad days, talked at like a confused old dog that is being reprimanded for emptying its bladder on the sitting-room rug.

The age of idealism has become an era of shabby self-preserving pragmatism.

I know, I know: the education white paper is called The Importance of Teaching. But as we listen to politicians telling us that we have got it all wrong, and yet another curriculum review is cobbled together, it feels that being told teaching is important is not quite the same as saying it ourselves.

As we listen to another crude misrepresentation of our supposedly woeful performance in the international league tables, you would be hard-pressed to feel a swelling of self-esteem. Teachers of humanities like religious studies or psychology are unlikely to be walking taller now that their subjects have been deemed not fit for that madcap new accountability trip-wire, the English Baccalaureate.

It is the same with the so-called academy freedoms. From where I'm sitting, a county council's careful strategy to raise standards has been derailed by the cavalier axing of Building Schools for the Future (BSF), by the incentives enticing schools to grab the booty from local authorities, and by the nodding through of free schools. Here in Suffolk, as the BSF cancellation scuppers plans to refurbish schools in our most deprived areas, more than #163;4 million can be found from the Government's war chest for a free school in one of our leafier villages.

As the parable taught us: the rich shall get richer and the poor shall get poorer.

Is this the idealism that drove us to join the profession?

When I talk to headteacher colleagues about why they have decided to convert to an academy, I rarely get an answer containing a whiff of idealism or a craving for some illusory sense of liberation.

The most common response is, "It's better to be an early adopter: look at what happened with specialist status. The early schools got the most money." Others will talk of the inevitable withering way of local authority support, of becoming an academy in order not to be outshone by the school next door, or - dismally and predictably - of needing the cash to stave off deficit.

It may be, of course, that I am out of touch with the profession's true feelings. Perhaps I'm Billy-No-Mates skulking at the playground's perimeter fence, resenting all the kids with the shinier shoes, the fancier phones, and the glamorous smiling boy- and girlfriends.

Maybe I've become one of those demented old fools Larkin warned we would all turn in to.

Or perhaps it's time that more of us started screaming.

Geoff Barton is headteacher of King Edward VI School, Bury St Edmunds.

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