I taught in Knowsley in the eighties. They were desperately trying to recover from the seventies nonsense of new builds with open plan classrooms and groovy “new” teaching ideas that had failed to transform attainment. Schools were being re-organised, walls built and an attempt made to provide a framework of discipline for teaching to exploit and learning to flourish. So how could such a desperate authority make all the same mistakes again? I think it stems from a fundamental misunderstanding of what a school is; this misconception flourishes in politicians but will infect Governors, Heads and even teachers if they are not firmly anchored in the classroom.
A school is an organic institution; you could have a great school in a tent. The buildings will help or hinder but will not stop learning when the roof leaks or be the magic ‘nuke’ that conjures outstanding attainment when the shiny new PFI is launched. Schools are all about what happens in the classroom and that is a reflection of the ethos and traditions or customs of the institution: the culture. It is not to do with organisation: although for social and political reasons I have always been a dedicated adherent to the local authority controlled comprehensive school, there are great schools in every guise from academies to free schools, faith schools and yes, even grammars (although I attended two shocking ones). It’s about the people.
If the last paragraph sounds like a ridiculous statement of the obvious, I would like to make it clear that I have endured four separate attempts to “transform learning” with major building programmes, once in Knowsley and three others elsewhere. Each time the Head, Governors (once sadly including me) and Government conspired to ignore the devastating effect of the disruption on the school, the real school: the people that it comprised. They ploughed ahead, vandalised perfectly useable buildings squandered obscene quantities of our money and let improving schools (the organic bit) decay to varying degrees of misery.
In the worst case a well established local school was bulldozed to make way for a ‘state of the art’ PFI that a senior official involved in commissioning admitted to me was “a bit of an architect’s wank”. Although crude it exactly explained the structure: it was a bid for a RIBA award and the fulfilment of the Head and the Governors fantasy about what 21st Century learners would need. Open plan, large ‘breakout spaces’, moveable partitions, small group rooms, individual learning spaces scattered around an “intelligent building” where you can’t open the windows or put the heating on: the remote computers do that, smart T.V.s and of course iPads. Teachers were consulted about the design but few complained about the lack of walls…until they tried to teach in it. The worst of it was that the school was a tenant, it had lost control of its environment and bled money to the landlord whilst remaining impotent to improve the fabric. In the three years it took to rise from the imagination and the earth, leadership went AWOL. Entranced by the future fantasy, leaders ignored the strains on the school and finally when installed in the new environment gaped uncomprehendingly when the children failed to respond in the anticipated way.
The real tragedy is that it had all been seen before. Yes, I did point it out but was, as usual, a lone voice muttering inconvenient truths from a lowly position and easy to dismiss. For this reason I have no confidence that the current tide of discipline and traditional teaching will endure; politicians will try to find the quick fix with our money and Heads seek a legacy in bricks and mortar, Government will tinker with the curriculum and the organisation of education which will scatter under its own momentum of a privatised service. One day a rant like this will probably be written by a future teacher wanting “walls and windows that open”, unless of course education does some learning of the hard lessons of the past. Sadly, my glass is half empty.