There’s a war on average. Schools must not be average; they must be better than average. Michael Gove once memorably gave his reasoning for the war on average:
Yes, it is theoretically possible for everyone to get better all the time. It is possible for every school to give every pupil good or outstanding progress. If you imagine that every child is a bag full of skills, rather than a human being full of complicated stuff, you can imagine it to be possible. Yet when you start teaching, you notice that sometimes some children make faster progress than others; some make slower progress; some make progress at first, then plateau. It’s almost as if they are tiny people with lives. It’s almost as if, no matter what you do as an educator or as an institution, there are a million and one other factors. Curse those children, and their lives.
Of course, I’d hate to be seen as the kind of Enemy Of Promise that would want to make excuses for every child not making outstanding progress all the time in every school all the time. And in order to avoid the likes of me, the Government sensibly decides that all schools should be good. Not what we used to call “satisfactory”, which is now “requires improvement” – but “good”. We must all be “good” – and if we can’t be, maintained schools must become academies, because that will solve everything.
In my local area, there are 40 schools at risk of being forcibly converted into academies because they “require improvement”. Leave aside the debate about academisation for a moment, and suppose that the Government might have completely benign reasons for wanting to force-convert schools. I’ve worked in six out of the 40. They aren’t coasting. They aren’t going through the motions. I wouldn’t say – though what would I know, as a mere educator-drone – that they are average, or below average.
I’ve also worked in many other schools not listed there, rated as “good”, which have been rather mediocre; I’ve worked in others, not listed there, which are academies, and which aren’t magically better than their maintained counterparts by dint of being academies. But this is where we are: forced academisation is the only solution, it would seem.
Show me a coasting school. Find me one school where they aren’t either terrified about Ofsted’s imminent arrival, or terrified about Ofsted’s next arrival. Show me one where they aren’t trying desperately to engineer (and that is the politest verb I can think of) above-average progress for all pupils, pupils on free school meals, vulnerable children, children with special educational needs, boys, girls, any kind of group you might care to think of.
I’m not saying that stagnation is a good thing. I’m not saying that some schools don’t fail children at times. I’m not saying that some children don’t get left behind. But I want to know if the war on average is the right way to go about it.
Also: what’s wrong with average? What’s wrong with – whisper it, through the shame – being below average? Were you – yes, you – always brilliant at everything? Was there something you struggled with? Well, imagine that you weren’t allowed to struggle with it. Imagine you had to be not just okay at it, but above average. How would that make you feel?
I can’t help feeling, the further I get into education, that we’re working essentially on two tracks. As my driving instructor told me: “I’ve got two jobs, one is to teach you to drive, one is to make you pass your driving test.” And that’s how I feel as a teacher. There’s my actual job, which is the useful bit, where children take on not only the basic bits of learning but also the learning skills they need to be curious, excited and inspired. Then there’s the bit that I get paid for, which is the bit where each child must make the right number of levels of progress in the right time.
Who cares if Child X’s dad had an accident last Christmas? Who cares if Child Y’s sister had leukaemia? It’s not good enough. They must get the levels. They must get the numbers, or I will have failed. And if I fail, my boss fails, and if my boss fails, their boss fails, and the school fails, and so on, and so on. Pressure, pressure, pressure. It presses on us, but no matter how much we try and shield the children, it ends up pressing on them. Lunchtime interventions instead of playing outside. Afternoon interventions in the core subjects instead of learning about the world. Reading interventions during PE time. That’s what we’re doing. We do it because we have to, even if we don’t think it’s the right thing to do.
We keep fighting the average. The average keeps on moving. We must get better. We must get better all the time. The children must get better all the time. The schools must get better all the time. And it ends up crushing children’s love of learning. But so what?