Education Matters: Schools really are full of joy at this time of year, says Geoff Barton

Geoff Barton, headteacher at King Edward VI Upper School in Bury.

Geoff Barton, headteacher at King Edward VI Upper School in Bury. - Credit: Archant

A fellow teacher said to me this week: ‘They’ve squeezed all the fun out of schools, haven’t they?’

I’m not sure who the ‘they’ was that she was referring to. It certainly wouldn’t be the pupils. In my experience – rather reassuringly after twenty-nine years as a teacher – children are still children and teenagers are still teenagers. They share the same hopes, fears, ideals, laughter, and optimism that first attracted me into the profession to work with young people.

Their lives may be more gadget-driven. They may be able to connect more easily via social media. They may be more intolerant of mediocre teaching, knowing that they might more easily find out what they want to know via Google, but I also sense that young people still love being in the presence of great teachers.

No, it’s not students that have squeezed any joy out of schools.

I imagine my questioner was referring the government.

It was a former government minister who once lamented that for too many people born in the UK, the first words they utter are, ‘It’s the government’s fault’.

He was stereotyping, of course, but we know what he meant – the all-too-British tendency to blame local failings on politicians somewhere, whether in Europe, in Westminster, or in our shire or borough offices.

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I’m not so sure. This, after all, was the year we saw the most ideological of education secretaries get shuffled sideways to the relative obscurity of the chief whip’s office, there apparently to be muzzled from further upsetting the teachers.

Michael Gove has been blamed for a lot – setting off firecrackers across the schools system, designed to shock the sleepy education establishment out of its torpor with an endless volley of policy announcements. From free schools to a major curriculum shake-up, from changes to training and teacher contracts to a hurtling reform of the qualification system, there was hardly an aspect of education that he didn’t – depending on your point-of-view – try to reform or meddle with.

So it would be easy to blame politicians for a sense that schools have become more joyless places.

But I’m not convinced by the whole conspiracy theory. I’ve spent this morning in a meeting trying to help a student to raise his grades and gain the place he wants at College. I’ve walked around and seen great teachers evidently enjoying working with great young people. I’ve met a group of sixth formers secretly to rehearse a cross-dressing act we will be performing in this week’s Christmas Show. In an hour’s time, two hundred students aged 14-19 will sit down together for Christmas lunch with live music, great food, and ubiquitous party-poppers. Last week over 100 of our students put on a breathtaking series of sell-out performances of Grease. So here, at the very end of a punishingly long term, I’ve seen smiles and heard laughter.

And I’ll bet most schools have been just the same.

The constant corrosive narrative about how bad the English education system bears little resemblance to where I work and the many schools I visit. You’d think our corridors were peopled by unkempt jobsworths who can’t wait for the school bell to escape homewards. You’d think we tolerated bad language and imbued low expectations. You’d think we were in it for the money or the holidays or the pension.

It’s not a view of the profession that I recognise, just as the view of state schools I read about never bears any resemblance to the many, many great comprehensive schools I know and love.

And of course politicians will generate wacky wheezes. It’s what they do. They will suggest they know better than us how public money should be spent. And, in truth, sometimes they will be right.

But it’s our job in school leadership to resist what we don’t agree with, to stay true to our principles, to keep developing the kinds of schools our parents crave – strong on standards, rich in extra-curricular opportunities – and to make sure the laughter, the joy, the passion for real learning remains at the centre of our schools.

Christmas is a time of joy. In my experience the best schools are places of joy. All these years on, it’s still a huge privilege to work in one.

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