I'm writing this blog a day after the celebration I, my family and my Dad's friends and ex-colleagues had reflecting on his life, a final goodbye to a man much loved who will be sorely missed. There is much that could be written about my Dad, many perspectives which could be taken on a person with many talents and interests. As my brother put it, he was a true Renaissance man; he was fluent in five languages and more than competent in at least six others. He wrote novels and short stories and was a published expert on the history and development of the French language. He could play the piano, clarinet and accordion all self-taught and took an A-level in maths during his twenties because he thought it would be fun to learn something new. He also did much of the carpentry which filled both the home and garden he shared with my Mum.
But here I want to focus on a central philosophy, a core belief system he held about the world and his place within it. To explain this worldview and the person who held it, it is easiest to introduce through a short anecdote. In 2001 I was fortunate enough to be invited to take up the position of Head of Geography at a large secondary school in South Lincolnshire. It was a promotion I was happy to take on but I was also anxious as the department I was joining was staffed by an experienced and knowledgeable team which meant that I would be by far the most junior member when I started.
At that time, my family would often take my Mum and Dad on a summer holiday with us and the summer of 2001 was no exception. While sitting on the back terrace of a gite in central France one evening, drinking a bottle of wine with Dad, I asked him to share a ‘pearl of wisdom’, one thing he would give me to help me into the transition to my new job, something I could hang on to as I found my feet. By this time he was retired, but he had had a long career in school teaching and headship which had been extremely successful; he had been the youngest headteacher in Lincolnshire and one of the youngest in the country when he gained his position at the age of 35 in the early 1970s.
I had to ask him his advice as he never offered it otherwise, he was too modest. When I asked for one insight he thought for a while, staring into the middle distance the indication he was giving the question genuine thought, and then after a slow sip of wine he simply said,
‘There's a lot has been written and said about managing and leading but ultimately your job is to make their job as easy as possible, the rest is merely detail.’
Dad had a habit of saying this kind of thing, something so clear and obvious yet so profound and important it needed little discussion or clarification and yet it spoke so deeply and clearly about him both as a person and as a teacher. For the thing which gave him pleasure, gave him genuine happiness, was to see others reach their potential, for them to succeed. He saw his role as being to help, to support, to facilitate, and if asked, to guide, to help that success grow and flourish. And this was his approach as a teacher, as a head teacher, a local councillor and as a Dad. He never once shouted at either me or my brother and he always took time to explain the world. Together with our Mum he was our most fervent supporter and yet throughout he did this with humility, never telling us how we should do something or even that we should do it at all. He would merely set out what he believed our options to be and then supported us in our decision-making. This is also how he led his school, his only concern was to ensure that the staff and students for whom he had responsibility had the best opportunity possible to flourish. My brother emphasised at the celebration of Dad’s life that he did this for 17 years at a secondary modern school because he believed that those who had been cast aside as unimportant by the 11-plus system were going to get a damn good education and positive life chances whilst he was able to have influence.
He did this with no concern to be seen as some leading guru. He never told others that they should run their schools in the same way as he did, or that to approach things in ways different to him was wrong headed or immoral. As with the rest of his career he simply tried to have a positive impact through care, through support, through love of those he had responsibility for. And to do this he worked tirelessly, from taking disadvantaged children from the back streets of Middlesbrough to Paris in the mid 1960s so that they could experience a different culture, a different way of life, through running his school through staff dialogues where decisions were always communal if possible (it was a great source of pride for him that he only ever pulled rank twice in making decisions about school policy in 17 years) to sitting and watching a TV programme each Sunday morning on the BBC about disability and learning difficulties because he wanted to understand how he could best help the children in his school with disabilities maximise their potential at a time when in the wider sector it was still acceptable to label such children educationally subnormal.
He found the trajectory of education from the 1990s onwards both bewildering and saddening. The rise of the quasi-market, the loss of clear guiding principles for the sector based on helping and valuing all, both academic and alternative. The rise of Ofsted as a regulatory police as opposed to a medium for guidance, growth and potential building. And especially the apparent development of super heads and edu-celebs, more attuned to building corporate careers then focusing on the well-being and growth of their staff and students.
And yet there are so many headteachers and teachers who still hold dear the same principles as Dad. Who quietly make a difference every day without telling everyone through social media or conferences how fantastic they are. Who value nurture and support. Ultimately it is these quiet disrupters, these individuals who undermine and subvert the harshness of Ofsted, the corporate sanitization of some of the MATs in the quasi-privatised education sector who will be remembered fondly, who will be the true drivers of social justice. Yet, as with dad, often their full impact will not be recognised for a long time, they will not be the ones invited to the DfE on panels and being given gongs. For as Lao Tzu said,
‘a leader is best when people barely know he exists. When his work is done, his aim fulfilled, they will say we did it ourselves’
As with so many others who lead through humility Dad will be sorely missed but fondly remembered and the immense good he did in the world will only continue to grow through those he quietly enabled and encouraged to fulfil their dreams and their potential.
Florian von Donnersmarck’s 2006 film, The Lives of Others, is an excoriating analysis of the work of East Germany’s Stasi during the Communist era in East Europe. On the personal whim of a government bureaucrat, the result of jealousy over a female actress, a playwright’s flat is bugged, an operation overseen by Stasi Hauptmann Gerd Wiesler. If you have never seen this film, it is well worth a watch, both for its script and performances, but also the deep analysis of a state machinery so paranoid about its citizens that it conducts surveillance on anyone who has been brought to its attention for the smallest of issues, or even as the result of made up charges.
It is the vision of an overpowerful state which leads many to continue to fight for free speech, to try to ensure that we all enjoy the freedom to put forward points of view within the ‘marketplace of ideas’. This offers the opportunity for others to engage with arguments and judge for themselves what might be both relevant and useful for them, or indeed ideas that they disagree with. These dialogues need to take place in an environment of mutual respect, and there are some ideas which rapidly become culturally unacceptable, and it is in these cases that the moral difficulties of what should be allowed to be aired and what should not become contentious. But on the whole, most topics, within the mainstream of society and politics, are not contentious in this way and should offer no barrier to dialogue.
But this is where the Department for Education becomes rather Janus-faced. On the one hand, the government are so concerned that universities are closing down alternative views that it has decided to intervene. Back in June, Arif Ahmed, a Cambridge academic was appointed the government’s free speech tsar. They cite no-platforming within universities as a reason for putting in place a system to ensure that this does not continue, that the ‘marketplace of ideas’ is diverse, so that all can be heard. I suppose that this is at least in part to ensure that confirmation biases (the DfE and their astroturfers love a good bias) are not allowed to form, that indoctrination of those in universities cannot take hold. Even though this has been a storm concocted by special advisors, the right wing press and Conservative politicians, at a push it might be argued that ensuring free speech is a good idea to work to, except that……
…..at the same time as the DfE is extolling the virtues of free speech, that organisations really do need to ensure a wide range of views are shared and explored, even those which appear unpopular or extreme, the DfE appears to be employing a little team of Hauptmann Wieslers to put possible undesirables under surveillance. Ruth Swailes and Aaron Bradbury, highly regarded Early Years specialists who work widely within the sector, supporting professionals and offering ideas and fostering dialogue within their area, recently found that they had been blacklisted by the DfE after an anonymous tip-off to the DfE that they were proposing ideas and opinions not wholly in line with those at the DfE (article about this here) (remember the DfE are the defenders of free speech in the education sector according to the appointment of a free speech tsar). It appears that after a single individual told the DfE that Ruth and Aaron had made a negative comment about some government guidance, they did a ‘Wiesler’ and sent someone off to hunt down their social media record and write a report on their level of subversive action.
There are three things I find immensely troubling about this. Firstly, given all the challenges the DfE face, with a crumbling ITE system they’ve badly stuffed up (with much worse still to come in Autumn 2024), a recruitment and retention crisis, and schools on the edge of physical collapse, to name but some, they feel that the best use of resources is to have individuals ‘playing Stasi’ and putting surveillance on members of the public for their potential thought crimes. Secondly, this is highly anti-democratic; in previous decades a story such as this would have been headline news as a government acts in an authoritarian manner to suppress ideas it doesn’t like. If this doesn’t send alarm bells ringing it demonstrates how desensitised we have become to state authoritarianism playing a major role in our lives with little more than a tut. Finally, it shows the acute hypocrisy at the centre of government, a government and an education department which is loudly proclaiming that is stands for free speech one minute, whilst the next its quietly doing a Wiesler!! And for those who say, well departments are allowed to only champion those ideas which align with their policies, two reactions. Firstly, you can’t call for free speech whilst simultaneously suppressing it, and secondly, if the ideas swimming around in the DfE are so obviously correct, then they will be more than happy to foster fora where dialogue about alternatives can be explored, if only to demonstrate that they are not as useful as the ideas in the DfE. Alternatively, it could just be that they don’t like challenge and believe the proles should pipe down and accept what is given to them!!
This is a blog which hopes to explore and navigate a different way of doing education