Spiritual Human is proud to present a guest blog from educator Steve Merifield. Steve was born in Hartlepool in the North East of England. He graduated from Leeds Metropolitan University with an Honours Degree in Physiology/ Psychology and a PGCE; later he went on to complete a Masters Degree in Education at York University. Steve started his teaching career as a graduate of P.E. and spent some time playing professional sport. In the intervening years he has worked at a number of schools in Yorkshire and the North East. He has held a range of positions including Head of department, Head of Year, Vice Principal. He has been a Principal for over a decade in a number of schools, many in challenging circumstances.
Musa Askari invited Steve to write a personal piece about his life in education. The challenges faced and overcome. As you will discover Steve surpasses these expectations and brings us closer to the life of an educator. He has taken his reflections to insights often overlooked from which we could all benefit by valuing education in wider society as a public good. At times one is moved to tears by the beauty and pain of the Steve’s experiences and at others our eyes are opened to new understandings. Throughout it is the story of a person devoted to their sense of duty to countless students. Thank you Steve.
Special thanks to the legacy of the late Tony Hanson, MBE, for connecting Musa and Steve. A lamp that shines bright.
What Value Education
Having spent almost 30 years and, by far the vast majority of my working life as an educationalist, I feel reasonably well placed to make a comment on the value of education per se, and the value that our community places upon it. Views are my own! I shall address the following questions; Has formal education improved overtime? How valuable is a good formal education to our broader communities? Has the profession been undermined over time? Does education improve social mobility? Do we become more human if we are better educated? Are we hopeful for the future?
Prior to my working life, of course, I spent my formative years ‘being educated’ in the late seventies and early eighties. This was within an inconsistent and largely unregulated system that was effective for some but, contentiously, I argue, failed a great many others. My particular secondary school experience, in the North East, was in a comprehensive school that in today’s climate, would be in a category of ‘special measures’. With hindsight, and the standards to which I work today, the quality of teaching was often poor and professionals were not held as accountable as they should have been. The first Ofsted inspection was not carried out until 1993 and, despite a view that this system is overbearing, I argue that it has been a force for good.
I faired reasonably well at school and kept motivated and inspired largely through a love of sport and the introduction to Basketball by a committed PE teacher. In addition, I was blessed to have parents who valued education, had books in the house, encouraged ‘being interested’ and, with very little money, enriched my life as far as possible. They taught me that the saviour of any society is the intelligent working class wo(man) and living life as a ‘good person’.
I take an informed view as a former student, as we all once were, and as an experienced teacher and Headteacher. Most people are an expert in education of course, as most have been to school! It requires though, a highly skilled teaching and support staff to secure effective outcomes for young people, something that maybe not enough people acknowledge. The role of the school is increasingly held to account, through the trial of media, for a broad raft of societal issues; youth crime, mental health and well-being, obesity, teenage pregnancy, poor literacy and numeracy and lack of basic values to name a few. This is before any mention of an academic curriculum!
As long as educations remains a political football, and there is no long term cross party agreement, these are issues that school leaders will need to shoulder. Policies continue to be devised on the basis of ‘ I think that…’ rather than ‘we know that…’.
Fact is, on objective measures, young people have become more educated over time. The media loves a headline; ‘exams have got harder/ easier’, ‘young people are not as resilient as they used to be’, ‘basic skills are lacking’! Young people are working harder than they ever have and manage to navigate their way through a system victim of constant meddling by policy making adults. Less than 20% of people graduated with an honours degree (or equivalent) in the 1980s, today it is over 50%. Technological advancements are moving at an increasing rate and most innovation is driven by young people. I have always been a little confused with the term that was pushed by government through schools and linked to outcomes. When people are asked what they feel this means the answer is usually one of two possibilities. One is that young people can choose to move somewhere else, usually to find employment, and maybe somewhere better than where they started. Secondly, that people have the chance to be upwardly socially mobile and move from working class to middle
class and beyond. I have an issue with both views; how do we regenerate and invest in local communities if we encourage our good young people to move away from them and contribute as a citizen somewhere else? Secondly, what is wrong with being ‘working class’? Who makes a value judgement of one profession over another? Fact is that we do not have a total meritocracy and large parts of the population comprise of good, very hard working people in very honorable professions who only earn a modest living. This continues to be the backbone of our society.
With respect to social mobility it must be then that if we are becoming a more educated society then surely people have the choice to be more socially mobile?
Increased accountability and challenging targets does lead to progress, if implemented in a supportive and humane way. We all need targets and all benefit from competition. For example, reducing waiting times in A&E, on time trains, cleaner beaches, faster wifi and increasingly effective medicines, we can go on forever. We should continue to believe in the impossible as we have been proven right over generations. Physicians said it was impossible for a human to run a mile in under 4 minutes. With self-belief and enormous effort Roger Banister achieved the impossible on May 6 1954. A year later it was so commonplace that 3 people did it in the same race!
We owe our largely comfortable existence to educated and curious people. We live in an age where there are fewer conflicts, many major diseases have been eradicated, people earn more, have more leisure time and we care more and act upon global issues. Democracy is growing around the world and there are clear links to a democratic world and a more empathetic, caring and progressive one.
I have spent the majority of my career leading schools in disadvantaged areas in what are termed ‘challenging schools’. In those circumstances one often finds below average attainment of the students, poor behaviour and a despondent staff. It is always a tough environment but leading a school to arrive in a position where both students and staff have self-belief and become effective and productive, is immensely rewarding. Ongoing investment is needed as it is not a level playing field. We need the very best working in the most difficult schools as I would argue, though some will disagree, it is harder as a member of staff working in challenging schools, in areas of high deprivation, than places that serve more affluent areas.
I have found over time that a school is full of children who, in the main, wish to do well. They have abilities and aspirations that are the same as all other young people. The crucial difference is that a proportion have arrived at that point without having had the scaffolding throughout their short lives that has moulded them into confident, assured and resilient children. There are families, in the broadest sense that hold a bracketed morality that many people reading this would not recognise. There are more children than you would care to imagine who have experienced, and continue to do so, treatment that any ‘normal’ person would deem unacceptable. Schools are often a sanctuary for some young people who know that for that period each day they will be safe, cared for and be well fed. These children often arrive very early in the morning, poorly equipped, looking tired and with ill-fitting uniform. These are the basics we attend to each day. Imagine a household where conflict is commonplace, profanity is the language of choice, animal faeces on the floor, visitors arrive with drugs and there is no semblance of structure? I don’t have to! Many children arrive in secondary school with an enormous literacy deficit. Research has shown that there can be up to a 30 million word gap (words experienced by children from childhood to secondary) between affluent families and those below the poverty line. In addition that children who have had more of a challenging upbringing hear negative as opposed to positive words, in a proportion of 3:1. Some children are born holding a string of aces, others are gambling with a weak hand from the day that they are born.
Incidents of emotional, physical and sexual abuse are more common that most people would think, and higher in areas of deprivation. Thresholds for support are high and support services are overwhelmed. It leads to a blame culture of social services, police and schools. Unfair on any level as these are the people who care passionately and are on the front line every day. We all bear a level of responsibility in our personal and professional lives to effect change and support our most vulnerable. At the same time however we must not extend total excuse to adults who perpetrate such abuses and inflict great damage.
The causes are complex and as with life there is no panacea. The link with poverty is real there is no doubt but I know correlation doesn’t mean causation. The hope is this. There are a great many more children, who live with families on the poverty line, who arrive at school every day on time, fully equipped, looking as smart as they can. They smile and say good morning, they work tremendously hard each day, they respect others and contribute to a positive community. Their families love them like we love ours, they support the school and have a healthy regard towards education. A single interaction each day with one of these kids is enough to sustain me. We must address the serious issues presented by the minority but not let it cloud all the good work that is happening.
I frequently experience verbal abuse and physical threats from both pupils and parents/carers and, on a daily basis, deal with behaviours that are unacceptable and often irrational. Some parents/ carers can appear to be entirely ‘anti-education and disagree strongly with what is a very reasonable moral code. Pupils can display aggressive behaviour and can find it difficult to control their own emotions. Often this is learned behavior. There can also be a culture of individual rights above responsibilities, in a misguided way. Parents choosing to not send children to school because they disagree with the uniform policy or wish their children to wear false nails as ‘it doesn’t affect their learning’! A uniform doesn’t make someone a better nurse but represents a professional and cultural expectation that is positive and productive.
I suppose this could be a little disheartening, as the only aim is to provide a good education and keep children safe and secure. The reality is that these dealings absorb a large amount of time but do not represent the majority. Most young people wish to come to school, feel a sense of belonging, be cared for and to work hard. Most parents/ carers wish the best for their children but sometimes are unable to engage with the process. There is no doubt that this is a challenge. You can work harder and work more hours but, unlike an input, process, output model this doesn’t equate to better outcomes. We generate an interest in learning within our young people through relationships and a fundamental human connection. Children don’t work too well for people they don’t like! Teachers are simultaneously responsible for engaging 30+ young people, all with different personalities, abilities and needs. Some who want to be there and some who may not, it is a unique profession.
The drive then is to ensure that systems, policies, practices and an unwavering moral purpose develop a school environment in which all of this happens. A culture with which many children are not familiar with, but one that will insist on basic values, good manners and a positive work ethic. Education plants seeds of change that will flourish and grow at different rates. Some lying dormant for a long time, the fruits of which may not be seen by those that have sown them. I keep doing it as I know that people will receive ‘benefit in kind’ due to the work of good people in schools.
I have experienced the depths of sadness and the heights of great joy throughout my career. From having a student die in my arms to celebrating the start of an ex student’s married life as his best man. There are thousands of anecdotes and each one serves as a lesson for me to become a better person and a better teacher. This is the tapestry from which I gain my strength. ‘Teaching is the profession that creates all others’; I believe that, education transforms lives and communities.
There is enormous hope and our future is in the hands of young people. I work in multi-cultural schools were race, creed, colour, sexuality and religion blends into a melting pot of acceptance. Children are much better at this! They are more creative and capable of people of my age and generation. Greta Thunberg a 16 year old child has managed to mobilise millions of people in addressing climate change, meeting with Barack Obama and becoming a Nobel Peace prize nominee. Joshua Wong is a 22 year old poster child for democratic dissent, going head to head with Beijing, already with an impressive record of effecting positive change.
Each year, in every school, there are students who leave with a solid educational and personal foundation. Many will go on to making the world a better place, it is an ongoing privilege to be a small part of this.
Can I distil it down to one thing? I still have possession of a card, of some 20 years, from a Mum of two young people, who had to battle with many issues. It simply says ‘Thank you for being kind to my children’.
See also on this blog Musa Askari’s interviews with photojournalist Jeff Widener (Tank Man image) and film-maker Antony Thomas (The Tank Man).