I spent a short period of time at BETT last week, resplendent in its new home at the ExCel centre. The venue seems to suit it. Olympia was certainly creaking, and somehow being in the heart of Docklands reflects how the focus of BETT is now very much on the business of education rather than the business of education.
Judge me guilty of viewing the past through muddied rose tinted spectacles, certainly, but in recent years it feels as though that shift has accelerated. The show feels more blatantly about industry and commerce than ever before. Leadership conferences now seem to be focused on developing your Academy as a business opportunity; about the importance of business skills in school leadership. Reference to young people is notable by its scarcity; the salve of TeachMeets and talk of teacher's social networks a thinly velied disguise for "look at me" edu-entrepreneurs grasping the market opportunities to avoid spending time in the classroom. There seems to be an implicit assumption that community comprehensive schools are a long way down the education industry's agenda; an assumption that any rebellion to Gove's ideology of market driven education is at best doomed to failure and at worst already crushed. So it goes.
Still reflecting on the place of comprehensive education within the developing educational landscape, I also attended an interesting social event, peopled by the education and technology sectors. One of those present was William Rankin, who provided an enjoyable short presentation built around a series of video clips intended to stimulate discussion. After one clip a member of the assembled group lightly chastised Rankin for taking an 'entertainments' approach to teaching. This group member seemed to suggest that such an approach was just as unhelpful as the tyrannical approach featured in the movie clip. There is some value in that. Who needs more of that 'let's all sit on the desks together' 'Dead Poets Society' hippy schtick after all? But my patience was tested to breaking point when the same voice from the floor continued with a suggestion about teachers needing to be 'new romantics'. It remains unclear exactly what this Romo approach to teaching might look like however. To be frank I don't really care. It was probably just another self-promoting edu-entrepreneur with a consultancy to peddle. Ah, the pressures of the market.
After another clip Rankin suggested that the design of the learning environment is crucial. As a former architecture student and design graduate I naturally wholeheartedly agree with that. Many others seemed to think the same. Perhaps even the Romo consultant. Yet despite Gove's decree that all new publicly funded state school buildings should follow the supermarket model of architecture and be right-angled, uniformly sized boxes, no-one seemed to raise that contradiction. Perhaps for them it isn't a problem. Perhaps for private schools and corporate backed Academies it isn't. Perhaps the haves are free to learn in creative, well designed spaces whilst the have-nots must just make do with little square silos. I'm aware of perhaps being a little unkind in that assumption, but the fact is that the overwhelming politicisation of education in the UK at the moment cannot help but bring out the cynic in me. Gove has drawn a very clear line in the sand. He makes it impossible not to take sides. Divide and conquer and all that.
You don't have to be a genius to see that in the past few years Gove and the majority of the mainstream media have taken every opportunity to devalue teachers and the teaching profession. I'm not saying all public sector teachers are perfect. They aren't. And I won't blindly defend those who aren't. But the truth is that vast majority are dedicated, committed and passionate. They are also very good at what they do. And that is teach.
A few years ago I would have been one of the first to applaud the shifting focus in education practice and discussion from teaching to learning. In the current climate however that feels more like a divisive tool; another stick to beat teachers into submission with. I'm now wary of promoting that line, and find my hackles rising at those who attempt to redefine themselves as 'learning designers' or some-such nonsense. The standing of teachers and their profession in the UK isn't in a situation that will be resolved with snappy new definitions. It doesn't need a rebranding exercise. It needs a recognition that education is about individuals and not spreadsheets; a recognition of the importance of genuine breadth and balance to curriculum; a recognition of the inherent magic in the pleasure of learning as opposed to it being solely a means to a purely economic end. A shift back from the business of education to the business of education.