When, in my previous life as a primary school teacher, I met parents a few weeks into the school year, I’d begin each consultation with a question and a hope: “Is he/she happy?” Happiness is essential to learning, and for many years as a teacher I was ridiculously contented in my work. Children can be challenging in many ways, but they’re curious and enthusiastic individuals, wonderfully open to ideas and experiences. When I began teaching back in 1978, my job was simply to share with them my knowledge, expertise and passion – as I saw fit, in the light of four years of study and practice, recognising their different needs and all the while learning myself through experience. I remember, for example, deciding to spend half a term exploring FIRE, and the excitement I felt as I began a growing spidergram of ideas across time, continents and disciplines. What would yours look like: 1666, volcanoes, cave men, Stravinsky’s Firebird, the local Fire Brigade, autumn leaves, Turner’s Fighting Temeraire, a candle clock? This approach wouldn’t suit every teacher but it made my role enormously creative, and my head teacher was happy as long as the children were learning and developing – happily.
Everything in school has changed, again and again, and each initiative and requirement has further eroded creative freedom. New buzzwords make way each year for newer terminology and long before I stopped teaching it was getting in the way. I recall the anxiety of a student observing my Y4 poetry lesson and pointing out, “You didn’t say what the objective is.” “Ah,” I said, “it’s for them to enjoy poetry – reading it and writing it.” And they did. When required to complete feedback forms, my classes always named Literacy among their favourite lessons – just as in the next-door classroom, they loved P.E. best and learned sporting skills I couldn’t offer. If as adults we think about the best teacher we ever had, it’s the one who made learning fun because he or she had such fun teaching us.
Am I a dinosaur groaning from my swamp at the enlightenment of progress? I don’t think so. I may not keep up with each new method or acronym, but since I gave up teaching in 08 I’ve visited 500 schools as an author and listened to thousands of teachers. And I have the feeling that in many staff rooms, the idea of weekly Happiness lessons will be received with something like exasperation. Not because teachers don’t value happiness, but because successive governments have spent the last twenty years undermining the very wellbeing these lessons would aim to nurture. In fact an obsession with ‘achievement’ as measured by highly competitive data has created the stress cited by Lord Darzi. Teachers are exhausted and demoralised by it and children, even in Key Stage One, sometimes feel it.
A primary school teacher shared with me the time when as Deputy Head he found himself sitting with a clipboard, identifying areas for development in another teacher’s lesson. It struck him suddenly that this subject of his checklist scrutiny was the result of intensive planning and emotional commitment, and that finding fault is easy but teaching isn’t. Returning to his own class, whose results in their Year Two SATS showed progress better than expected, he recognised the price of pushing them. They were seven years old and they were stressed. So he gave up the deputy headship and looked for a class teaching job where the ethos would put the happiness of children before the numbers by their names. He found one, in a school where the head tells the staff not to work at weekends and where children are valued because they’re who they are. It’s a happy place and I hope Ofsted feel it, and acknowledge its importance.
We all know that it’s harder to teach well or learn effectively if we feel undervalued, yet the system reduces self-esteem in both partners in the process. Teachers are enormously hard-working and caring but in my experience they don’t believe in the god of data. Nor do they see education in terms of serving UK PLC. Rather they believe in children as unique, complex and imaginative beings full of potential and character. Because I also believe in the power of stories, I always saved time for a story to end each day: a shared emotional experience that stimulated expressive work in music, art and drama. Now, under pressure to deliver – not just an ever-changing curriculum in ever-changing ways, but the all-important data – I understand that teachers can’t often find that special Story Time. Data wins; a creative opportunity is lost.
What underpins great stories is humanity, and schools can’t succeed in developing human potential without genuine connections between people, yet the system fractures relationships. One primary teacher told me she felt there was never enough time to respond to a child’s emotional needs. Distressed, she felt she’d failed in that duty of care. Secondary teachers tell me about the disengagement of students who perceive themselves as academic failures. They try to give equal credit to the teenager who has a good sense of rhythm or colour, is fast or kind. But the education system is perceived by students to be built around exam success, and if they can’t contribute to that it’s not surprising if they become hostile or depressed. Staff rooms too may be full of overworked, underappreciated people and therefore not always harmonious. No one seems to judge teachers on the levels of creative, liberating joy in learning observed in their students. Those students, whatever their age, are defined on paper by their scores in tests for which they have been prepared – just as teachers and schools are judged by them. I suggest that rather than applying the sticking plaster of Happiness lessons (requiring a curriculum and robust assessment process?) we need to reverse the damage caused by politicians in the name of education. By embracing a deeper, more imaginative definition of learning and fulfilment that recognises the many needs and strengths of young human beings in a school community, we can liberate pupils, along with their teachers, from the exam-factory mentality of governments out of touch with living.