In 1848 a religious advice pamphlet observed: “Some boys laugh at poor cripples when they see them in the street. Sometimes we meet a man with only one eye, or one arm, or one leg, or who has a humpback. How ought we to feel when we see them? We ought to pity them.”
Why did you come into teaching? I’m guessing this is a question that teachers across the country will be asking themselves whilst clutching at the last of the Christmas chocolates and knocking back the last of the Christmas wine. Indeed, I’m sitting here, eyeing the half-completed pile of marking, making optimistic plans to eat less and exercise more, regretting that last tub of Heroes and wondering where the hell my school shoes are – and I know this week, I will ask myself that question at 5.45 every morning…and possibly for the next three months at least. I have a sneaking suspicion that I will be less and less grateful to be employed as the week wears on.
But it is an important question. When we rock up to the university/training training programme, new folder and notepaper in hand, ready to learn about Vygotsky and Freire, we have all chosen to do so in the knowledge that the old adage about teaching is just not true. At least I hope we realise that ‘if you can’t, teach’ is an insidious misrepresentation of the worst kind. Some of us absolutely love our subjects and want to be employed using the knowledge we have gained in our education. Some of us do it because teaching is a craft to be mastered. Some of us because it is the least altruistic profession, in the same way giving a birthday gift might not really about the joy of giving to another person; it is simply the desire to feel that warm glow that says ‘I’m a good person’. To borrow a phrase I am rapidly coming to dislike, teaching might be for some folk a Jedi-level ‘virtue signal’.
So why do I do it?
I was once fresh-faced and enthusiastic, I thought I wanted to teach because I loved my subject and I wanted others to love it too. But it turns out that wasn’t entirely it. So here it is, on a blustery Sunday evening. The reason why I do it.
When I started teaching, I was given a Year 7 English class. They were also my tutor group. In that entirely mixed ability class, I met Vikesh* and I realised that I had absolutely no understanding as to how to teach him anything. Vikesh had been born with microcephaly; alongside having a distinctively small cranial cavity, he had the cognitive ability of a six year old boy. On top of that, he didn’t speak English. It was a lucky coincidence that we spoke the same home language and Vikesh didn’t judge me for having a six year old’s linguistic ability in Gujerati. I panicked. I became frustrated. What was I supposed to do with this boy? I had thirty other students and I wanted to teach. I couldn’t because he couldn’t learn like the others.
You’ll be reading this thinking that he should have been in a special school. I agree. But he wasn’t. He was there, with me in that classroom and I had to do something. My LSA – one of the best people I have ever met – embarked on a programme that meant that he would have some meaningful education. We learned letters. We learned sounds. We learned verbal communication. We played cricket in the aisle of the classroom when he achieved something small. The other students didn’t get any less of my time. It’s just that Vikesh got me in the blank spaces in my lesson when the others were scribbling away furiously. It as the most tired I had ever been in my life but I was finding something. In the midst of the madness of learning how to teach, I learned why I teach.
Because Vikesh – like so many students with additional needs – didn’t choose to be there. Society put him there. There was no provision for a child of his needs within a reasonable distance from his home and his parents knew he had to learn to be around people. I’m pretty certain that as much as he learned the basics, the children around him learned just as much about humanity and acceptance. He wasn’t to be pitied. He was a member of our community. And just like society is legally obliged to make reasonable adjustments to be compliant with the Disability Discrimination Act, I was obliged to make reasonable adjustments to my teaching. The discussion about what constitutes ‘reasonable adjustment’ is a valid one and it needs to be had. But exclusion on the grounds of special education need is much more problematic.
When we separate the act of teaching from its intended or unintended effects, we ignore that fact that whether we like it or not – for whatever reason we came into teaching in the first place – we change someone’s world. And we can either show the love and acceptance that comes with that, or we can move people into boxes. To teach is to change someone’s world, in a million ways, in a million moments.
If I believed that Vikesh should have been in a special school, or that Jenn* (blind, autistic, impaired mobility) or Henry* (a descendant of Dickens with Aspergers) should have a school for themselves, I would worry about the line. Where is the line in separating out students with additional needs? Who stays in a mainstream school? Vikesh is an extreme case, but if we start to categorise who we can and can’t teach, that way trouble lies.
This brings me to the other reason. The fundamental belief that teachers, not politicians, are the engineers of society they want to live in. I don’t want to live in a society that places people in neat little boxes so that I can get on with it. By believing that teaching is more that a knowledge-delivery system, we subscribe to William Temple‘s school of thought:
‘Are you going to treat a man as he is or as he might be? Morality requires that you should treat him as he might be, as he has it in him to become…Raising what he is to what he might be is the work of education.’
As I put in the years at inner-city schools, I came to know that exclusion in any form is wrong – either in segregation according to educational need or as a method of managing behaviour. And the statistics on exclusion and SEN make for horrible reading. The brilliant and well-informed blog, Ed Yourself, points out:
The single biggest reason for permanent exclusion from school is “persistent disruptive behaviour” and two thirds of pupils who are permanently excluded have some degree of special educational needs, with 1 in 10 having a statement.
Let’s throw race into the mix just to see what happens when we start to see children as categories and not people…
Combine some of the greatest risk-factors for exclusion and you have this: a black boy, with SEN and claiming free school meals is 168 times more likely to be permanently excluded than a white girl with no additional needs, who does not claim free school meals (Institute of Race Relations).
Add to that the fact that exclusions are on the rise in academies and free schools due to a lack of legislative clarity on the mandate to use alternative provision in educational establishments that are guided by their funding agreement and not the Education Act – we have a bigger problem than we think in how we deal with students who do not fit the ideal.
Add that to the study that outlines the correlation between permanent exclusion and crime and you have a problem that exists not in the classroom, disrupting your teaching of a poetry anthology, but in your streets, in your prisons, in your morgues.
I don’t have the answers to the challenges of teaching students with all sorts of different needs because I don’t think there are any hard and fast answers. What I do know is that these children – the dyslexic, the dyspraxic, the rich, the poor, the able and not so able – are in our care. And we have a duty to make sure that we make reasonable adjustments to ensure that they achieve their potential. Because that is what changes worlds.
When I get up tomorrow, as hard as it might be to prop my eyelids open with the burnt-oust matchsticks of a great Christmas, I will remember that my job is to teach. And that ‘teaching’ means more that being in the room, delivering content.
Speak to me in a week and you may find less fighting spirit in me, but for now, before I go and find those shoes, this is it.
The return of The Great British Bake Off is a welcome addition to my summer holiday. You can’t beat the unadulterated joy of watching complete strangers bake well. Or, indeed, bake badly. It’s safe to say I have missed the sight of grown men and women weeping disconsolately over a battenburg and I am relieved that there will now be something to tweet about other than English-related minutiae.
However, before GBBO takes over my Twitter feed entirely, I have had a thought. And of course, when I have a thought (it is occasional and should be marked by fireworks and bunting), inevitably there is a blog post of some sort. So, without further ado, it occurred to me, whilst watching the first show of the new season, that teaching is a lot like The Great British Bake Off.
In what way is this true, my dear? Well, teaching is as old as the hills – ask the teachers of Norman conquerors. They must have been in intervention for years, learning English grammar. Can you feel the Saxon frustration, folks? “I just cannot imagine how we are going to get a decent pass rate this year (1066). The influx of EAL students is of grave concern.” I tried to translate that into Old English, but it didn’t work, so you’ll just have to imagine. Well, baking is also as old as the hills: “How are we going to bake good old-fashioned British fare when all these French ingredients are being drafted in? Pah!”
Maybe that’s why I know so many teachers who love GBBO; something in the process reminds them of what they face in the classroom and out.
We all start somewhere. Mixing the ingredients in GBBO reminds me of lesson planning. The recipe analogy is often used when lesson planning is discussed; ingredients, or parts of lessons, must be meticulously measured to ensure a perfect bake. After all, who wants to risk putting in too much flour (teacher talk) as it might dry out the sponge (engagement levels)? Of course, sometimes, you need more flour. It is (and I nod in deference to the traditionalists), a vital ingredient and far more important than all those frivolous cherries on top.
And we all have our Signature Bake, don’t we teachers? That lesson you roll out because you know it is spectacular and you’ve taught it before, so many times. The bake has been good, the students have made better than expected progress, there are no soggy bottoms (students coming in below a Level 4 have been more than catered for) and your sponge on this one is definitely not dry. You have engaged in whichever way is appropriate for your challenge. Here, I feel it is my duty to point out that it’s not a good idea to turn students over to tap their bottoms to check progress. That’s not okay.
Moving swiftly on, you’ve definitely cracked the behaviour of the cake. Obsessive oven-watching is reminiscent of behaviour management in classrooms. You’ve set the temperature, you’ve established a time for baking. And now, when all is done, you are waiting (the equivalent of sitting cross-legged on the floor in front of an oven door), waiting to that cake to rise – to expectations.
You’ve already dealt with ‘decoration’. You’ve definitely got a preference: Powerpoint, SmartBoard, Promethean, sturdy old chalk and slate, but your resources are prepared. Damn, that bake is going to look good after it has made progress. Like student books. Flawless icing on the cake.
Everyone hates the technical challenge. It’s the exam preparation of the Bake Off. It is the English Language controlled assessment of BBC One. No one knows what they are doing and they keep checking other tables to see if they’ve got it right. I despair.
The process needs Mel and Sue. Think of them as Bake Off Assistant Principals in charge of Teaching and Learning. They come round, on their ‘baking walks’, offering advice and support. You need them because they function as mocksted inspectors; it’s a formative evaluation of the bake/lesson, sampling your off-cuts, critiquing the decoration, asking about your soggy bottom. They are never needed more than when you experience The Great Cake Drop – when a lesson goes wrong and it’s almost unsalvageable. Mel, Bake Off SLT with experience of this kind of thing, can offer consolation. Sue, a joke and some whisky, probably.
The show has its own form of Ofsted inspection in the quite glorious shapes of Paul Hollywood and Mary Berry. If you like, they are the summative inspectors – coming in with a day’s warning to prod your cake and raise a brow. Brought round to each ‘table’ by a nervous looking Mel and Sue, they impart their own wisdom. They’ve been doing it for years, don’t you know. Paul Hollywood and Mary Berry: Cake Inspection Team. Never knowingly underbaked.
The question on everybody’s lips is whether we ought to grade that bake. Is it an outstanding bake? Does that word even work in teaching or baking? What does it mean? It is a good bake? Is it a bake that requires improvement? Will the baker go into special measures?
The show wouldn’t be complete as an analogy without its nod towards performance management. Star baker – give that person a TLR. Going home? Suggest that they find ‘employment’ elsewhere, out of sight of cake-trays and KitchenAids.
Ultimately, GBBO reminds me that I may have dropped my cake, made more than one dry sponge, had a few soggy bottoms and been harangued by the Paul Hollywood of Ofsted inspectors (actually not true – no one has those crinkly blue eyes on the Ofsted team), but sometimes – just sometimes – I make an amazing cake. And those students eat that cake right up. And I take my apron off, wipe my floury brow and know I am okay to bake another day.
Now where did I put my icing spatula?
It was with a considerably arched brow that I read recently about how The National Institute for Health and Clinical Excellence (NICE) and the Social Care Institute for Excellence (SCIE) have issued guidelines to parents on managing problematic behaviours in their children. As a teacher, I have long been an advocate of collaborating with parents, not only on the ins and outs of academic success, but also in terms of behaviour management and developing resilient and characterful children.
It is absolutely clear that success in education does not just come from parental understanding of the finer points of an English APP grid. Quite often, schools approach parental collaboration with a half hearted nod towards sharing academic resources and fulfilling statutory requirements to keep them informed as to how access the Ofsted Data Dashboard. I have heard conversations in the last ten years that start with a moan about how if only teachers could get parents to manage their own children and end with the inevitable: “but I don’t have time to set up a parental engagement session in which we discuss how to set boundaries and encourage co-operation!”
We can’t have it both ways. If we are going to comment on parental engagement as teachers, we have to be willing to have an open dialogue about what children – students – need to become successful adults. This means biting the proverbial bullet and dealing with the fact that this dialogue can be painfully awkward. As a teacher, I am allowed to say “your child is not behaving in a respectful or productive way” or “I am setting a sanction for undesirable behaviours” but when it comes to providing advice to parents on what I think they should do, that is when the awkwardness begins.
Fundamentally, the fact that I am not a parent works against me and in conversations with parents, I have faced that knowing smile (slightly sad, perhaps even pitying) that says: how can you possibly know what it is like to raise a child and all the difficulties that brings?
My response, never spoken aloud, is always the same. All I do is raise children. They come to my classroom as eleven year olds and they leave as eighteen years olds and for that time, I am partly responsible for their upbringing. Not only do I see them through their silly seasons, their traumas, their successes, I see each and every one of them standing next to other children with other parents. The full range.
I think if teachers had just one opportunity to stand up to the nation and give advice to parents, they would probably all say very similar things. There are many parents out there who are brilliant at doing all those things – this is not intended to generalise about parents’ ability to raise their offspring. So, in the spirit of sharing and dispelling the awkwardness and to start a dialogue, this is what I want to say to parents.
Talk with your child
It is not easy maintaining dialogue with a teenager. I, too, have seen sulking and unresponsive stares. As an English teacher, I see that the most literate children – the ones who go on to achieve the highest grades, are the ones whose parent/s talk with them. I say ‘with’ deliberately, because I have also seen a lot of talking ‘at’ and that doesn’t necessarily work if it used all the time. Children switch off and become immune to lectures, they are much more responsive to carefully considered questions. Suffice to say that the talking must begin early. All the research shows that modelling speech and conversation at an early age leads to more literate and successful children. Shouting parents almost always lead to shouting children.
Follow through with sanctions
If your child does do something you do not approve of, or is misbehaving at school and you set a sanction, it is imperative that you follow through with that sanction. Sitting in a meeting with your child’s teacher and saying that you will take away the X-Box/ground them for a week/stop them watching TV and then caving at the first tantrum or sulk just means they will keep on with the negative behaviour. There is nothing more frustrating than when a teacher has a meeting with parents and is told about the sanctions that will be put in place, only to find that student gloating about how they have not had any consequences at home. Teachers are told constantly to be consistent and firm with behaviour and sanctions; it would be brilliant if this could happen at home too.
Don’t give up
There is an oppressive sense of despair when I hear the words: “I can’t do anything with them – they won’t listen to me anymore – I give up” from a parent. The simple fact is that if you as a parent have given up, then there is very little hope that I am going to be able to turn things around, at school or indeed, at home. I want to be able to work with you to ensure the best outcome for the child – and yes, I can help to make things better, but if a parent washes his/her hands of a child, we may as well go for that early bath. The thing is, I also know that even though the words are said, it is very rare that a parent actually does wash their hands of their child. But the damage often comes from a child hearing those words. It offers carte blanche to a child to continue behaving in the way they are, whether that be not completing homework, or arguing with teachers.
It’s not about success, it’s about effort
Carol Dweck and Claudia Mueller from Columbia University conducted a large-scale programme of research into the psychology of praise. The findings were incredibly clear – children who were praised for effort outperformed those who were praised for success. The day in, day out praise from a parent needs to be focused not on how clever the child is, but on how hard they work. This is something my colleagues and I are starting to recognise and see the results of – children who are praised for effort become more resilient and are more likely to pick themselves back up from failure. The biggest issue I see with my teenagers is the fear of failure; it often manifests itself in the child not even attempting to start something that is perceived as difficult, because that is easier than failing and trying again. Parents can help their children to overcome this fear by praising their effort and showing them that hard work is more important than success. Until it comes to the final examinations, of course.
Don’t blame me
The most divisive and destructive thing a child can see is a parent publicly blaming the school or an individual teacher for any problem that has occurred. When I call parents in for a meeting, chances are I have to squeeze it into a busy day. I am not there because I have some sort of antipathy for that particular child – I want to move forward. If a child sees a parent criticise a teacher, that division is set. By all means, disagree with me and my methods – tell me you think I am wrong, but not in front of the student. You will remove any respect that student has for me and if that is the case, how can I be expected to maintain the performance of that child and to ensure that rules and regulations are kept? In many ways, it is exactly the same thing as criticising your spouse’s interaction with your child in front of them. One parent attacking the other’s ability to parent in front of the children is seen as destructive; it is just as much so when you make it clear to your child that you do not respect that teacher enough to speak to them privately.
Get involved with the school
My biggest hope is that more parents feel they can become involved with the school their child attends. Lots of research has shown that parental engagement and involvement means different things to schools and parents. Fathers often feel marginalised as parent activities in schools can be perceived as being geared towards women, some parents do not feel they can access services the school offers for parents for fear of stigmatisation. One of the most difficult barriers in engaging parents is often their own experience of education. I firmly believe that schools have to find ways to engage with parents productively, as studies show that children of parents who are involved with the school not only outperform other students, but also have better attendance and behaviour.
If your school has a parents’ association, try to join it. Be proactive about contacting teachers – show that the dialogue is open. Attend school events, where you can, with your children. It is not easy; working hours often mean that parents find it incredibly difficult to attend evening events. I have a lot of respect for working parents who manage to get into the school for concerts and parents’ evenings alike.
There, I’ve started the conversation. I look forward to working with you.
I keep going on about it and I probably will, simply because it makes good sense. Empathy, or the lack thereof, causes so many of the daily frustrations in teaching and prevents so much of the learning that could take place in the classroom, that it seems foolhardy to ignore the potential impact of examining this concept in detail.
The term empathy was coined many years ago from the German ‘einfuhlung’ meaning ‘in-feeling’. You might ask, how is that relevant to the discussion here today? Having a developed sense of ‘in-feeling’ and being able to tap in to others’ ‘in-feeling’ is fundamental to classroom success. How many conversations have you had, as teachers, with students who do not seem to care whether they are failing in your subject and/or others? Is it the same student who disrupts others’ learning? Perhaps that is a symptom of that student’s lack of einfuhlung and in order to encourage him or her to succeed, that sense needs to be nurtured and developed. Think of the times when you have invested in a particular child’s ‘in-feeling’ – did it have a knock on effect on that child’s perception of other students?
There are many reasons why empathy may be impaired. The link between low socio-economic background and lower levels of empathy is established in reams of research. However, for once, the ‘kids these days’ attitude may hold some truth. Technology, as much as I am an advocate of its use, has seen an increase of poorer levels of empathy. If the majority of a child’s interactions in early years are with a screen, and they grow up to interact using technology and have very few mechanisms for human interaction, it is not hard to see the possible impact that might have in the classroom. All of a sudden, the constant talking over the teacher, or another student, seems understandable (if still hugely irritating). That child does not understand, does not have the neurological experience of interacting in society with all of the regulating behaviours that involves. If a child is constantly borrowing others’ equipment, if a child is punching other students, if a child is tapping on the desk, or stealing someone’s lunch – all of these behaviours signal a poor level of empathy. I must point out that every child has the capacity to do this – I’m not saying that anyone who taps their pen on the table to the chagrin of others, is a psychopath – I’m saying the one who does it constantly, having been told, is probably a child whose ability to empathise with others is impaired.
The empathy-led curriculum, I must say, is not a substitute for an attainment or knowledge-led curriculum. The concept, as I see it, is one of two parallel structures existing as the ballast for a robust education system. Attainment and knowledge and results are one thing, and one reason why we do our jobs. The other reason we do our jobs is to ensure that we send out functional human beings who understand what it means to exist and interact in our world. Hinton et al in ‘Brain Research, Learning and Emotions: Implications for Education Research, Policy and Practice’ (2008) assert “if schools are involved in intellectual development, they are inherently involved in emotional development” and for me, I do not consider the two to be mutually exclusive. Building a student’s emotional and empathetic capacity has a knock on effect, not just for that child but for the whole room.
It think of it as an equation (and I apologise to teachers of Maths everywhere – my idea of equations involves some basic concepts joined together by mathematical symbols). The equation is: raised empathy levels = decreased disruption = higher attainment and success levels. I told you it was basic.
So what is the empathy-led curriculum, this panacea of which I speak so lengthily? I do not pretend to have all the answers – indeed, you may be better off speaking to someone who is an expert in child psychology and the development of empathy. I can only present ideas that may increase levels of empathy in your classrooms.
Of course, the PSHE curriculum, the ways we study texts in English, the way we present historical events through the people who were there can all be enhanced to include a greater focus on empathy. Just adding on modules on empathetic behaviour may not be the answer here; it’s in our daily interactions (the curriculum that we don’t ever see written down) that empathy needs to be pushed to the forefront. Our language has to change when it comes to encouraging students to behave in a more empathetic manner.
Speaking and Listening suddenly becomes absolutely vital. Admit it, if you’re an English teacher, you’ve thrown the odd speaking and listening activity to pay lip service to a National Curriculum that doesn’t quite exist, knowing that you ought to do something that involves roleplay and thought-tracking. Admit it, if you don’t teach English, speaking and listening is something that you know ought to happen in a classroom, but you’ll be strung up naked before you make students work on groups to solve whatever problem Pythogoras had. In particular, explicitly teaching what good listening looks like, using verbal directions like “show me that you are listening by looking at me” and “good listening means turning around” helps to establish the interpersonal nature of the classroom. Teaching students to incorporate other’s words into their own responses (“I’d like to you to respond with ‘I agree/I disagree with X because they said…”) is also a good tool to show students that they must absorb another’s point of view before churning out their own.
Group work can be difficult in classrooms where there are lots of students with low levels of empathy – I believe in harnessing their einfuhlung to the einfuhlung of others using table competition, team activities and team consequences. And no, I can’t believe I wrote that either. One way of increasing empathy levels in the classroom is to expose students to a wide range of people – those they would not normal encounter or choose to spend time with. I am as guilty as everyone else of allowing students to work in the same groups because it is easier for me to manage that to deal with a whole new dynamic every time. Changing it up and showing students that they can link to new people is empathy-booster. Praising empathetic behaviour can work wonders for classes who have a terrible track record of working collaboratively.
Behaviour management of low level disruption can be an opportunity to stress the importance of considering others. I used to stress the impact of poor behaviour on that individual’s attainment. Now I try to link it to the impact on others – can you think of a student in the room who always behaves well? What do you think they felt like when their learning stopped because of you? Encourage your mischief-maker to find the similarities between him or herself and that other student. It has had surprising consequences – not consistent consequences, mind you, I don’t pretend that one nod towards empathy can change years of unempathetic behaviour. It can start a process though.
If you are interested in perusing this subject further, there is a raft of literature on the subject – my own favourite – Simon Baron-Cohen’s ‘Zero Degrees of Empathy’ and also Jeremy Rifkin’s ‘The Empathic Civilisation’ – and more and more people are looking to the psycho-educational value of learning the theory behind how students interact with their peers and teachers and how this impacts upon their success levels. Daniel H. Pink’s ‘A Whole New Mind’ gives a tantalising insight into how the “conceptual age senses” as linked to developing a greater sense of empathy can impact on what happens in the classroom. He defines these “senses” as design, story, symphony, empathy, play and meaning. Consider each of those words and imagine what would happen if those “senses” were developed in your students, and in particular, students from inner city backgrounds whose levels of deprivation in their early years have led to an innate dearth of these skills.
So, is this is universal panacea? Well, possibly. There are lots of musicians who have said things like ‘love makes the world go round’ but that’s a bit soft, if you ask me. Replace ‘love’ with ’empathy’ and you might be on to something.
This post is a response to the #blogsync topic for January suggested by Edutronic here: http://share.edutronic.net/
What do misbehaving students, a bus crash in Coventry, the Tottenham riots and our current government have in common?
The concept of empathy is one I have long been interested in. Differences between students can often be attributed to varying levels of empathy – persistent low level misbehaviour speaks volumes about that particular child’s lack of empathy for students around him or her. Generally speaking, the more empathetic a student is, the better their relationship with their peers and the adults around them; it comes as no surprise that these students often achieve more highly than less empathetic students.
Simon Baron-Cohen’s brilliant and precise ‘Zero Degrees of Empathy: A New Theory of Human Cruelty’ had me thinking about the links between empathy and student behaviour. His assertion that certain people exhibit “a pervasive pattern of disregard for and violation of the rights of others that begins in childhood or adolescence, and continues into adulthood” may seem only to apply on the surface to those with diagnosed pathological conditions and yet, as teachers, particularly in urban, deprived areas, do we not see these behaviours exhibited by our poorest behaved students on daily basis? These students turn into the adults of the future, sometimes taking their low empathy levels with them. Some of them become inconsiderate drivers, noisy neighbours, litter-droppers, looters and muggers.
Whose responsibility is it to teach people to consider others, to be more empathetic?
The curriculum (when we have one coherent one) ignores this life skill – it is overlooked by those who design the curriculum, perhaps out of a mistaken belief that it is not a teacher’s responsibility to develop levels in empathy in children. We don’t explicitly teach empathy; it is a by-product of studying History, Literature, PSHE and RE but it is not something that is taught as a life skill that can mean the difference between success and failure. It doesn’t fit onto a league table. It would look odd nestled in the data outlining A*-C grades including English and Maths. And yet, in our society – one that is struggling against a ‘me-first’ culture highlighted most horrifically by the Tottenham riots – we can’t afford to ignore the impact of ignoring this most human of skills.
Recently, in Coventry (a town blighted by the German bombing and then by some shockingly poor architectural choices), a bus carrying passengers crashed into a pawn shop, scattering the gold in the window display. I would like to think that if I was on a bus and this had happened, my fellow passengers’ first instincts would be to check on each other, to make sure that everyone was safe, out of danger and uninjured. But no: many of the passengers and onlookers began looting the gold, scrabbling in the debris for what they could gather up. They left the scene with their pickings. When reading this story, I couldn’t help but associate it with other instances of disintegrating empathy. Only someone with very low levels of empathy could set fire to buildings that may be occupied during the Tottenham riots; only someone with very low levels of empathy could assault a Malaysian student and pretend to be helping him. Lack of compassion has been very much in the news in the last few weeks – a recent study by the journal Psychological Science suggested this week that the less compassionate you are, the less moral you become.
Where, then, does a decreased ability to display empathetic behaviour come from? Have we always been this way? In a lesson with Year 11 students, we were discussing Hamlet. In analysing the line: “Something is rotten in the state of Denmark”, my students made the link between the quality and style of leadership and the knock-on effects on state and society. Claudius, the ‘king’, is rotten and therefore, the country is too. We don’t have to travel too far to see the parallels in our own society. Empathy is not a feature associated with the Coalition government, or those appointed by it. Sir Michael Wilshaw’s statement almost sums up my argument: “If anyone says to you that ‘staff morale is at an all-time low’, you know you are doing something right”. When you’ve finished being astounded by the sheer bullishness of the line, it is hard to find an iota of empathy in that sentence. The sacking of Downhills Primary governing body by Michael Gove can be seen as yet another nail in the coffin of empathy. The act in itself is the result of complex wranglings influenced by the need to demonstrate total control over a system that is powered, ultimately, by human beings with human feelings. Whatever our opinions on school underachievement, the end result leaves onlookers asking uncomfortable questions about the methodology of improvement on such a public scale.
Combine Sir Michael Wilshaw with Michael Gove, add in cuts to services such as domestic violence support charities, whisk in a whole host of measures that adversely affect women and ethnic minorities, and sprinkle liberally with a reduction in public sector pay in the poorest areas and you’re left with a potent mix that may account for the unease in communities. It’s a recipe that lacks one vital ingredient: empathy.
The inevitable consequence of a right-wing government that is more interested in the stick than the carrot and nothing in between can only lead to a society that reflects their own lack of empathy. Society is a mirror of leadership. I don’t imagine the Coalition government sees itself in the Tottenham riots, or the bus passengers that looted the pawn shop – but maybe it should. Maybe it should.