When I was a primary school teacher asking ‘why’ was a significant feature of my life, ‘Why do leaves fall?’, ‘Why do we need a full stop?’ and ‘Why did you think putting Baby Bell wax on your hair would be a good idea?’ (Genuine memory, poor child, I had to cut it out!)
In recent years ‘why’ has taken on a deeper significance in my work. I realised that ‘why’ has been an unanswered, niggling question my entire career.
When I was a class teacher and later in Senior Leadership, I had severe Imposter Syndrome. Not because I didn’t feel I was a good teacher or leader, but because I just didn’t get education. I found the over emphasis on English and Maths standards extremely uncomfortable. Parents of children who were exceptional artists, footballers, scientists were spending parents’ evenings dissecting maths and English targets whilst their significant achievements were not even mentioned. More generally the way in which education was reduced to such a routine and formulaic pedagogy made me sad. As I watched the uncomfortable transition from EYFS into National Curriculum I wondered, when did we give ourselves permission to stop kids being kids?
I went along with the tide because I wanted to belong, I wanted to succeed, and I was acutely aware of the importance of standards for the success of our school. I loved my job, but I felt like I was faking it and I didn’t fully understand why. Ironically, I trained in performing arts which while helping me to role play a teacher very successfully, I wondered if I’d made the wrong choice and I should have ‘treaded the boards’ after all.
It wasn’t until a friend asked me to help her write the curriculum for a new free school she wanted to open, that the world of education suddenly fell into sharper focus. She was working in prisons, running drama projects with young men across the South West. After ten years in this tough but rewarding work she realised that if these men had had a better start in life then their path may have been very different.
We started researching curriculums from all around the world and for the first time I truly gave myself the space to ‘re imagine’ education without our system. I learnt about the history of education, about the way education is approached in different cultures, and about the direct impact it has on the success and wellbeing of a society as a whole.
I realised that the Imposter Syndrome I had experienced was actually a deeper conflict of understanding or asking ‘why’ and therefore not driving my own professional philosophies, beliefs and practices.
Many of us grow up in education and never leave it. This leaves our ability to be objective about our system near impossible. In the same way parents often imitate their own upbringing, values, traditions, so we in education do the same. There is a comfort in tradition, a safety in rules, and a reassuring value in achievement.
As well as researching the history of education right back to the Greeks, I also began to read beyond education; books about thinking, books about the world of business and economics. Through this process I began to develop my own version of what I believe education is and what it should be. It was the single most powerful moment in my career, like I had suddenly understood the plot in a complicated film. I was no longer an imposter; I had a formed a much deeper understanding of education and what I believe it is, shouldn’t and should be.
In my work I advocate everyone having their own personal education vision and philosophy. I have mine, which I revisit and change regularly. The more I research, and the wide variety of settings I experience, the more stretched and challenged my core beliefs become. I have been convicted by Mary Myatt’s work and passionately believe in coherence, whilst also being deeply inspired by the works of Robinson, Gerver and Price.
Once we have a clearer view of our core business this can then be the driver for asking ‘why’ more widely. ‘Why does school start and finish at these times’, ‘why do we construct timetables this way’, ‘why do we assess in this way’…
I was recently privileged to have a virtual tour around Barrowford School. The Headteacher, Rachel Tomlinson is a Queen at asking ‘why’ closely followed by ‘why not’ to everything she does. A school with no set playtimes, no sanctions or rewards, with a deeply inclusive culture demonstrates a community who know exactly what they believe education should be. They have also integrated the Sustainable Development Goals into their curriculum ensuring their pupils understand the rights and responsibilities we have as outward looking citizens of the world. They decided to do this not because the DFE said so, but because they ask ‘why’ and of course, ‘Why not’.
As I said my baseline position changes, I also get older (the crows’ feet remind me daily) wiser (although I still suffer with below average general knowledge) and slightly more maverick (still a rebel at heart). Our Free school application was approved and I hope to be able to put my musings into practice; but in the meantime I continue to maintain my core business of encouraging people to step right outside the British education system and always ask ‘Why’…