After celebrating her 80th birthday, Joan Sallis looks back and makes a plea for stability
In perspective, history often looks like a repeating pattern of action and reaction. ‘Reforms’ often take place because some earlier reforms have gone too far. Societies fear chaos and therefore now and then produce rigour. Rigour exceeds its targets and freedom becomes the fashion. This process is strongly active in education. It doesn’t take long for freedom to go too far and threaten to become licence, but new constraints on freedom soon raise anxieties that creativity is stifled by too much rigour, and in schools off we go again on an extremely time-wasting and ultimately child-damaging process. If you live long enough – and I’m working at it – you begin to wonder whether this disruptive pattern is unavoidable. School governors find it bewildering because their term of office may be too short for them to see pattern and perspective. Pupils are not around all that long either!
From Beatles to bondage
The ’60s were the golden years for those lucky enough to be young. I wasn’t old then so I can’t speak for others. But in education they soon produced panic.
Creativity wasn’t exactly a dirty word but its effect on education was alarming. Never mind the spelling, feel the imagination. All that joy suddenly became associated with loose living and bad teaching and as for spelling and tables – well! The reaction came in the 1980s and beyond with the national curriculum, the national testing, the league tables. Schools became rather dull places and measurement became a national sport. School governors are just getting used to the idea that all the apparatus of testing and besting, naming and shaming, specialist schools and special measures, is part of life when . . . new dawns tint the horizon yet again and once more we wonder, I hope not in vain, ‘Does it really have to be like this? Is there no answer which will last a generation or two?’
It’s called being human
Well, maybe it is. I do detect a similar process in many human activities, but recently education has had more than its share.
I have had the experience as a governor of moving from a beleaguered comprehensive, which managed to combine specialist status and special measures in what felt like the same school term, to a thrivingly creative primary school with a wide social mix right at the exciting moment I have just described on the see-saw of education fashion. I didn’t do so of my own accord, of course. A change of political control on the council where, ironically, I had successfully fought years ago for non party-political governing bodies brought a purge of the politically uncommitted.
Stop the pendulum
But I am saying please God, stop the pendulum, I want to get out of the way. I just want us to stay here in this golden light without any clouds or storms but proving that the good doesn’t always have to go to pot and get dragged back.
Yes I love the new fashions. I love the fact that in my school we have managed to keep our place in the SATs stakes and get an outstanding Ofsted report under every heading – all in a school with a socially very mixed intake and, despite having lots of off-timetable days, all the activities in the list above by the bucketful, generous time for all kinds of creativity, varied sports and many outings. This school was well ahead of the change of fashion and indeed would be offended to hear it called a fashion, though of course we all welcome the fact that, at last, the world has seen sense and is advocating the kind of school we already have. This all sounds very privileged. It is very privileged, especially as I am about to add that we have a family counsellor and a drama organiser (and I don’t just mean school plays) who work hard during playtimes and all day, and a fantastic governing body which works tirelessly for the school and is enormously proud of it, especially the creativity. But its privilege isn’t in any special status or character, only in the commitment of its people, including the children’s parents, now that they have seen the effects. It is not socially privileged – all the children come from the neighbourhood, which is socially mixed. The staff work very hard indeed.
Not the usual governor stuff
I am pickled never mind steeped in ‘the usual governor stuff’ of course. This is a bit different, but I know how much governors are affected by the tedious swings of the pendulum and how powerful governing bodies might be, if they saw the pattern, in using their influence to make the best of current practice permanent. All the governors I talk and write to are fed up with the pendulum and its effects on their schools and their children. They would welcome and embrace some more enduring policies if they were sure they could identify them. I am so fortunate to have seen this happen in my present school that I want to try to tease out the fashion from the underlying values, which to me means a healthy debate on what aspects of health and happiness for children contribute to high standards and how this process can be protected against that confounded pendulum. As I keep saying to my wonderful teacher friends, yes of course it’s right, but you have to go on proving it over and over again to those who pay for schools and those who choose this one.
Adults go on having their arguments, but children only have one chance.