Hanging out at the International Festival of Business: how is a school a business?

Some time after the Tony Blair’s testosterone fuelled ‘education education education’ mantra started being chanted around UK school playgrounds, I found myself working with a number of schools around Liverpool who were preparing for the tsunami of funding that was heading their way.

Whether this was for kids from rich families or for kids from poor families who were starting with a deficit of life chances before they even stepped through the school gates or the kids in the middle who were neither GandT (Gifted and Talented, aka troubled, awkward and difficult to manage) nor HTR (Hard-to-Teach aka troubled, awkward and difficult to manage) but were still able to attract funding due to their perceived invisibility, the fact was that many schools found themselves awash with cash. Sometimes more than they knew what to do with and sometimes more than was good for them.

This led to many schools to take their fiduciary duties even more seriously and to believe that that they now had to start acting as if they were businesses.

This might involve the appointment of a ‘business manager‘ (sometimes a redeployed bursar who would have struggled in any commercial organisation, never mind one that was pretending to be one); the consideration of students as ‘customers‘ and the teeth grinding proposition that the curriculum was something that students could pick and choose from much like a visit to their favourite sweet shop on a Saturday afternoon.

Now don’t get me wrong: I’m enthusiastic about personalising curriculum where it makes sense and responds to students’ interests in a meaningful and authentic manner: but all too often the personalisation agenda became subsumed within a Disneyfied agenda which threw any critical faculties off the fourth floor of the head teachers executive lounge suite and sold sold sold a morally bankrupted curriculum which valued the individual at all costs: visible in one school I visited which encouraged students to think of themselves as the Me PLC of their generation.

From now on, schools were businesses, students were customers and teaching subjects was something you only did in the privacy of your own home. ‘Subject knowledge’ became a dirty word used between consenting adults and certainly not something you would wax lyrical about in public.

There was of course a lot of resistance to this tendency of talking about schools as business centres; but more often than not, the rhetoric was seductive and many schools accepted their new identity as business start ups with the minimum of squealing.

What the consequences are of that turn of affairs will be explored in future posts – and of course at our next conference, All Our Futures which will be held in Liverpool in June 2014. Further details are here.

The feeble child: why being feeble is a neat strategy to survive school.

Feeble children don’t fit and don’t come up to the mark of what is being demanded of them by their teachers or politicians. The feeble child isn’t – and doesn’t aspire to be – independent – or develop skills as an independent learner. They are highly dependent on others, whether consciously or not. The call to be prepared for an independent life fills them with horror.

The feeble child may not actually have many aspirations at all, is content to muddle through the day and has no view to the future. The feeble child is neither gifted nor talented – or is even in special measures and has no serious weaknesses. The feeble child is just that – feeble, weak, and dependent – and as such sits outside of the gaze which is directed at their peers who may variously be described as gifted and talented, ‘hard to reach’; dysfunctional or socially excluded.

The feeble child is not hard to reach at all, indeed their feebleness and utter dependency means that they are hard to shake off. We might harbour desires to exclude the feeble child as their dependency is so exhausting for us – but their strength (for they have many) is their instinct to be included, to include themselves in others co-dependent lives.

Unleashing the Unwanted on the Unexpecting: teachers responses to creative moments

Picture a small Welsh Hotel in late February, fresh with glimmers of early spring sunshine reflecting optimistically off the grey Menai Straits. Thirty Primary Head Teachers, Education Action Zone Directors and LEA officers converge on the small town of Beaumaris for three days of discussing, planning, evaluating and reminding ourselves of the local nightlife. And Learning about Creativity. The sessions start promptly and we dutifully sit through workshops on the Extended School, School Leadership, Teaching and Learning, Special Educational Needs and a myriad of other agenda items which seem to flood into Head Teacher’s offices daily from on high. The tide of initiatives is unrelenting. Social Exclusion, Gifted and Talented, Learning Mentors, Accelerated Learning, E-credits, The Primary Strategy and now Creativity is on the agenda.

The message from up the food chain is that Creativity in the Classroom is now officially important. Word has passed down to all of us in the way that much communication is processed in education: people deliver monologues and soliloquies at each other. Government at the LEAs and Head Teachers, Head Teachers at teachers, and teachers at pupils. Monologues which like to think they’re dialogues, but in fact are rules and instructions dressed up as advice and ‘good practice’.

But first, before the creative potential of the Classroom can be released, it is our turn to participate in a Creative Workshop. We face the impending session with a mix of suspicion, interest and hangover. In some quarters there is a distinct unease about what is about to unfold. We are presented with a creative task. We have been told we are going to listen to some music and then, in response to this stimulus, we are to create a poem, make some music, prepare some movement and put the whole thing together into a presentation for the end of the afternoon. The music is Liadov’s Enchanted Island and Holst’s Mars from the Planet Suite, two too- obviously contrasting pieces of ‘classical’ canon fodder which instruct you to think ‘ooh, peaceful’ on the one hand or ‘cor, angry’ on the other.

We set out to magic up a piece of creativity in the wake of this piece of emotional and psychological manipulation, doing as we are asked in a well-behaved-group sort of way and having a lot of fun and discussion whilst preparing our various contributions. One of us opens up frankly about her unease about being asked to write a poem. Another, mightily irritated with how the original sources of music has been applied so didactically, writes a free-flowing rant in the Seething of Tunbridge Wells style of old which uses the f-word in a novel and liberating style.

https://drnicko.wordpress.com/2011/09/04/poetry-on-the-hoof-what-are-you-trying-to-sell/

This makes lots of us laugh heartily. We like to hear the f-word very much, so that the author is encouraged to repeat it in rehearsals as often as possible. Quite whether we would be happy to hear it in our classrooms is another matter entirely. Whilst we can be as creative as we like as responsible adults, allowing that old Anglo- Saxon English the free run of the modern classroom with a group of excitable and hormonally-drenched pubescents is quite another matter.

One of us notes that some kids in schools are like of bottles of Coke – you do not know if they have been shaken up before they come into the classroom or not, and if your efforts at unleashing their creativity are going to make them explode. That is one of the problems of creativity: how do you ever replace the top on the bottle once it has been opened?

Given that pupils’ experiences of schools these days is driven by the need to comply and meet targets… Given that it is about responding to and adapting to the hierarchy; listening (or pretending to listen) to the monologue being talked at you, about formulating your own version of that monologue and then delivering your take on it at someone else (a phenomenon also known as bullying)… Given all that, how is it possible – and is it even desirable – for creativity to flourish?

The tension generated when creativity is placed up alongside learning in schools is that the former is fundamentally about dialogue and collaboration. It is not about talking to yourself or foisting your own monologues on others. Whilst some Head Teachers stress that more enlightened teachers are teaching creatively by acknowledging their pupils’ differing learning styles and recognising multiple intelligences, the act of creativity itself is a process which demands a physical, psychological and metaphorical wrestling with demons, unpleasant and unwelcome impulses, significant others, parents, partners, neighbours, the hell of the past and visions and delusions of the future. It is, crucially, as much an act of destruction and chaos as it is about vision and creation – as much about killing your babies as it is about bringing them up.

Are we serious about enhancing creativity in our classrooms and our pupils’ learning experiences? If so, what is to be done in a climate which views creativity solely as a one-way ‘making’ process, is terrified of the correlatived yet essential ‘breaking’ process, and continues to rain down monologues day upon day?