For 34 of my 43 years in teaching I have been referred to as ‘Andrew’ by students and fellow teachers. Andrew is my name – others called me ‘Andy’ when I was at college, but that has never stuck. I have always had difficulty seeing myself as an ‘Andy’, the name holds connotations of one who likes to go out with his mates, have a good time, and be the life and soul of the party – I’m afraid that is not and never has been part of my character, believe me I have tried!
‘How can the children possibly respect you if they call you by your first name?’, my mother was aghast when she heard that I had found a job at a school in which informality of relationship was deemed as integral to its ethos.
‘How can there be discipline when the children can wear what they like?’ She added, as all the formality of her own background and way of life came rushing to the surface like a flood of disbelief. My mother thus encapsulated the authoritarian outlook that has dominated schools for many, many years.
Recently, I read about a mainstream state secondary school that on the first day of the school year made nearly 200 students sit in silence in the school hall for about 2 hours for ‘uniform infringement’.
The school’s stated uniform policy is this –
‘We believe that correct uniform is very important in encouraging self-respect, pride in the school and a sense of community. It’s also an excellent indicator of a student’s attitude, state of mind and readiness for work.’
Bohunt School, Liphook, Hants
An informal ethos in educational establishments questions assumptions about regimenting children, systems of punishment and reward, and allows for relationships to blossom. Undoubtedly, teaching in an informal situation is very challenging – there is no hiding place, no status to cling to, little in the way of a formally designed sense of hierarchy, and there is an obligation to respond to questioning of authority by giving attention to the question itself, and listening to the student.
I have had the very good fortune of teaching in 3 schools* in which informality forms the ground upon which learning takes place. The level of informality has differed in each place, but the school in which I am now working, and have had significant involvement in over the last 40 years or so is probably the most informal.
It is a residential international education centre for around 75 students aged from 14 to 19. Staff and students live together, sharing many of the day to day tasks of taking care of the place and each other. The community exists to learn about what living is – not what someone’s idea of what life is, but to find out what it means to inquire into life with an open mind. This cannot effectively take place in an authoritarian atmosphere; it cannot exist in the systems that exist in most schools. However, this sense of informality does require consideration of others, a willingness to withhold judgement and an acknowledgement that mistakes are made. For learning to be effective there must be affection, which implies a lack of coercion and a willingness to listen.
Formality implies control; the formal gardens that became fashionable in stately homes of the 18th Century are testament to the obsession in taming the wild. And that obsession was also translated to the treatment of children. Formality is mechanical, requiring pre-determined responses and ensuring outcomes that have also been prescribed. Consequently, formality limits freedom, limits spontaneity and denies humanity. Formality forms the basis in the language of fear.
The current approach to education is all about a faceless, standardised production line from which some children will emerge as successful achievers and many others will be spat out as failures, losers. This lugubrious machine hoovers up money as the segregated masses are processed, but the residual fallout of individuals through this system is requiring even more funding.
Learning is the lifeblood of being human; there is no price; there are no limits and learning cannot be formalised.
My mother did change her attitude to the schools in which I taught, even supporting our youngest son in his final year at the school at which I now work. Sadly, the formality of her own upbringing could not leave her. She died after 2 years at a care home where she was seen as a cantankerous, self-important, superior nuisance; until she succumbed to dementia and softened slowly into a self-imposed death – no longer eating or drinking.
*St. Christopher School, Letchworth; Bedales School, Hants; Brockwood Park School, Hants.