Time spent on the “other” side

The Department for Education, tucked away on Great Smith Street in the aptly named “Sanctuary Buildings,” is remarkable, if for no other reason than its foliage. My abiding thought of that building is the giant plants, scaling the central atrium area and winding their way through all floors.

Spending time in this hallowed building has been my privilege, having trained with Teach First, who provide the advantage of the DfE’s ear, and who ship we self-selecting few in from time to time to discuss “issues.”

My first adventures in this building came in the Summer of 2011, when I was, again, privileged, to complete a “Summer Project” (Teach First’s kitsch name for an internship) there. My memories of those frantic two weeks are few, but stark. I remember working with some of the most incredibly dedicated and talented humans, fired by a burning desire to do good for our children. I remember they seemed to work endless hours that summer, and rarely took lunch away from their desks. I remember feeling as if their mission was my mission. I remember they seemed eager to reach out to teachers, although not entirely sure how to orchestrate this.

I remember having the same discussion with a number of civil servants, explaining I didn’t think I would ever be able to swallow my opinions and deliver a policy I disagreed with. I believe that, of those who I spoke to for career advice, 100% of them advised me to not join the civil service for this sole reason.

At that time in my early teaching career, I was such a mediocre teacher and such a (comparatively) decent administrator, such a career seemed welcoming – it felt like something I could be successful in, unlike teaching. But I’m delighted with their advice, and delighted I stuck it out in teaching.

Nonetheless, I still relish the opportunities I have been offered to enter that building and have a bit of a rant. The department’s consultations are inconceivably far-reaching, but I am lucky that through Teach First we have a say. I’m also honoured to have spoken on education with Ministers of State, although I believe firmly in the adage: “if you’ve nothing kind to say, say nothing.” And so I will move on swiftly from this particular topic.

This week, as one minute part of a consultation on the child poverty strategy, I was confronted with a government which appears to be trying desperately to make this blight on our social consciousness history. With a Minister who honestly acknowledged that, in times of austerity, we couldn’t simply throw money at the problem. And with colleagues who ranged from passionate and articulate teachers, to well-meaning and well-versed people on the peripheries of the school system, to frighteningly intelligent intellectuals whose job it is to make decisions which affect each and every one of our students.

I’m reluctant to bring politics into this blog, because I like to think the best of people, and I believe that all politicians (like all people) have good intentions. And despite the problems I have with some education policies past and present, I also temper my tendency to dismiss with the knowledge that what our country lacks is consistency; do we ever really have the chance to assess a policy, when one child’s education is steered by more than one political party across their time in school?

And of course, when tinkering with the whole system, we cannot afford to forget that there are individual lives in play. For every policy and draft and body of research and set of opinions, we have a collection of children – all hopeful, all full of potential; some succeeding against the odds, some succeeding because of the odds, and some being failed by us every single day, because the mechanism does not exist to eliminate our world’s ills with mere will. Would that we could.

That summer in 2011, I weighed making an impact on the hundred-or-so students I came into direct contact with every day with the potential to affect the educational quality of all children in the country. But in a way these are two sides of the same coin; when we work hand in hand, the micro and the macro, a picture begins to form of the certainties in each area of the country or city for students from all pockets of belonging; and what needs to be developed and what eliminated, both for these immediate students, and their children long after they have left us.

I remain ever optimistic that we, as teachers, can make a difference. I remain hopeful that we will begin to work together as a unit towards one united goal of equality in education for all. I rest assured that far more intelligent people than I are doing their best to piece together the parts which will bring the eventual day to pass, when all children will go to their local school, which will provide fantastic educational outcomes for them regardless of background.

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