Leaving a Legacy

5 Jan

The start of a new year gives us the opportunity to act Jason-like, looking into two directions: backwards – on the year that has passed and to the future – the one ahead, setting out plans for the future while also wondering what events are likely to unfold.    Reflecting on past successes and failures and pondering how we can build on those successes and learning from failures are always compelling.

Commentators are awash with reflections about the past.  Optimists are keen to look to the future to confront the world and its problems and leave an impact for the positive, possibly a legacy by which they will be remembered when long gone.

In the last issue of The Times Educational Supplement of 2015, Sir Tim Brighouse, former Schools Commissioner for London and Chief Education Officer for Birmingham, however, wrote: “Seeking a legacy is fool’s gold: so often it’s seen as the bedfellow of hubris….”

To prove his point, he describes politicians keen to leave a “legacy of initiatives as an essential platform for the next step in their careers”.

Fortunately, he did not write that it is “always seen as a bedfellow of hubris”.  Sir Tim particularly aims his revolver at politicians of all persuasions who run our educational system.  He mentions the plethora of education acts that have littered the corridors of educational history.  More recently, the ex-Secretary of State for Education, Michael Gove, introduced (or imposed if you prefer to be more aggressive), the English Baccalaureate, synthetic phonics, a new primary curriculum, a mystical assessment system, new GCSE gradings, the end of coursework and the proscription of BTEC courses, among other things. 

The incumbent Secretary, Nicky Morgan, having promised to consolidate, is now fast-tracking the Education and Adoption Act threatening coasting schools with academisation.

But politicians do have a problem.  They are hemmed in by time.  They are here today and gone tomorrow – like Premiership football managers.   Educational development, however, for impact, requires long-term work.    Our educational leaders are keen to make changes swiftly but are seldom around to see the impact. According to Sir Tim, in their desire to develop their own careers, “they

(i)         seek self-glorification;

(ii)        enhance their own personal standing;

(iii)       display messianic tendencies;

(iv)       have excessive confidence in their own judgements and are contemptuous of others’ opinions;

(v)        are restless, reckless and impulsive;

(vi)       are impractical, overlooking any possible unwanted outcomes;

(vii)      implement incompetently and fail to attend to detail”.

But short-termism may not be synonymous only with political ambition.  It may also have something to do with the fact that youngsters have only a short time at school and changes wrought for them need to be embedded swiftly if they are to benefit from it.   The tension between doing the right thing and doing it in the right period of time is stark though I cannot but empathise with Sir Tim in his desire to work long-term without detriment to the pupils currently at school.

He slates politicians for being so obsessed with their images that he describes one minister’s legacy as a whole profession’s burden.  However, there have been at least two politicians who have been in charge of the educational ship that left long-lasting, positive impacts on our schools – R.A.B. Butler and the late Margaret Thatcher. They brought in ground-breaking initiatives from which schools continue to benefit.

Butler steered us through the post World War II period with his Education Act 1944.

Thatcher established comprehensive schools, raised the school-leaving age from 15 to 16 and convened the Bullock Committee which produced a seminal report on language and learning.  She accepted the James report on initial and in-service teacher training.   Her White Paper, Education: A Framework for Expansion, predicted that within a decade nursery education would be free for children of three and four years old, whose parents wished them to benefit from it and that the number of teachers required would increase by 10% to keep class sizes constant.   She established the commission which produced the Warnock Report on special needs and the Education Act 1981 that was based on it.  Her government (when she became Prime Minister) funded a generous programme for developing the technical and vocational curriculum from which we benefit even today.

Sadly, she is known more for divisive policies based on strict financial housekeeping.  Can we forget her decision to curb free school milk for primary pupils and her moves to control the excesses of the unions, especially the National Union of Miners? But then, try making an omelette without breaking eggs and spilling some of the yolk on the cooker.

We all wish to be remembered in some shape or form.  That’s why the overwhelming majority of us cling on to life, even when we suffer from debilitating ill-health.  Is there anything wrong with this?   Newton helped us to develop insights into force and action, George Stephenson invented the locomotive, Edward Jenner, an English doctor and father of immunology, developed the smallpox vaccine, Jonas Salk the polio vaccine and the Wright Brothers the aeroplane.  Sir Alexander Fleming found a way of destroying bacteria the plague of surgeons, by discovering penicillin.  All these amazing persons left legacies and the world a better place.

Woody Allen said: “I don’t want to achieve immortality through my work; I want to achieve immortality through not dying.  I don’t want to live on in the hearts of my countrymen; I want to live on in my apartment.”  Well, much as he would want to be otherwise, he, like all of us are, is mortal.

So, for humankind – Woody Allen included – the only way of being remembered is by leaving a legacy – preferably one that improves the life chances of the children in our schools and leaving them in a better state that we found them.  And if we can do that without trumpet and drum, without wanting others to know and with no desire to become future prime ministers – so much the better.   Happy 2016!

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