Salus Populi Suprema Lex: service and disservice

Salus Populi Suprema Lex: service and disservice

This weekend a guest blog from Ben Davis (@BenDavis1972), headteacher of a Catholic comprehensive in the Northwest of England that has been developing a solutions-focused approach for the past two years. Writing here in a personal capacity he reflects on the impact of a lack of national leadership during the COVID crisis, the recent exams crisis and the hope that can be found in our schools.

Salus Populi Suprema Lex: service and disservice

In 1996, just as I was embarking on my teaching career, I undertook a period of additional training in theatre direction. I was assigned as Assistant Director to a production called Salus Populi Suprema Lex by the playwright Tom Kempinski. I had little knowledge of either the gravitas of the writer (whom I met during rehearsals – he fell asleep) or of the resonance of the play’s title. It explored the contemporary abasement of democracy, viewing the characters and events of the English Civil War through a lens distorted by the glossy broadcast media we have come to accept as our major news sources over 20 years later. Now, nearly 25 years later, the play is forgotten, but its themes are eerily prescient; its title more relevant and urgent than ever. The phrase, from Cicero, means ‘The highest duty of the government is the welfare of its people’. I now work for a local authority that takes this muscular proclamation as its motto. Our government does not, despite the Prime Minister’s love of flaunting his Latin, as COVID has shown us. This vacuum of duty is evident in its treatment of our young people and the adults who work with them.

Service is radical
Ours is a government (for we put it there) that seems determined to overturn every principle of Cicero’s maxim. Far from being dedicated to our welfare, to our flourishing and to that of our children, it has set itself to ensuring one thing: its own survival and the remaking of public institutions in its own image. The cost of this is the loss of the concept of public service, the gradual dismantling of democracy and the progressive blinding of the public to the egregious actions of our leaders. Service becomes either something transactional or a rare, genial anachronism to be patronised and celebrated. Lauded with superficial, blokey gestures. Clapped, but not funded. Lionized, but not nurtured. Public servants at the highest level are marginalised or sacrificed. Not only is the idea of serving the common good diminished, its actors are disappeared, its language nullified. Why? Because true service is radical, in the true sense of that word. It is an elemental act of care; an act of love, it is the roots of change. It is social, reciprocal, hopeful and compassionate. As such it is a threat to the established order, a bulwark against the worst of our systems. Fortunately, service has been at the heart of the response to COVID in our schools, despite the odds against it.

From the daily briefings and their majestic obfuscations, to the mangling of data, to the blatant lies and misdirections of ministers and members of the Cabinet, there has been no sense of service to the public. No strong hand of strategy stewarding resources with purpose to address the deaths of tens of thousands or the hobbling of communities and businesses across our country. Unencumbered by any sense of their own incompetence, our government has embraced cruel follies, garlanded themselves in ribbons of hubris (‘world beating!’). They have preyed on fear, sown division and harvested prejudice. I have never been convinced by the argument that we should be generous in our appraisal of leaders on sticky wickets, at least not those who lack humility and empathy. Nevertheless, they have traded on the goodwill of the populus: that very British sense that it’s ‘tough at the top’ or ‘I wouldn’t want their job’ has shielded them from even more direct criticism. The reductive, populist manipulation of ‘following the science’ (which really has the ring of you guys just wouldn’t understand this, leave it to us) or recent hashtag-rich exhortations to get kids ‘back on track’ and ‘back to school safely’ speak to that urge we all have to see normality return and to trade the complexities of life with COVID for calm simplicity. But such sloganeering also betrays the absolute indifference of our government to placing our welfare, our common good, first. And, as we know, indifference is much more damaging than hate, or violence. The contempt it reveals is the ultimate disservice. Indeed, it is service without love: a gong booming or a cymbal clashing, as St. Paul puts it.

The list of failures by our government is not so much a catalogue as an Amazon Fulfilment Centre-worth of disasters. Their heroic, Blitz-infused self-image is now so obliterated that when they address the country they are in fact speaking only to themselves, persuading one another that yes they are world-beating, robust, dependable. They have, fatally and in every sense, forgotten their audience.

The exams crisis lays bare our system
As lockdown approached and it became obvious that schools would be closed and exams cancelled, one of the many actions school leaders took was to speak with Years 11 and 13. I remember going into each class and talking them carefully through the implications as we saw them at the time. It became harder and harder to do this without betraying emotion as I went to what must have been 12 or 13 classes. I always made sure that I concluded by saying that we would do everything we could, whatever happened, to secure the best outcomes for the pupils and that if anyone needed to talk to me they should just come and see me. Small words of comfort, but as this crisis has worn on, the value of over-communicating reassurance, dependability and support has become more and more clear.

An hour or so later one of them arrived at my door: a Year 11 boy who had been having some difficulty in the previous weeks. For him the exam pressure had been building, the end of school was looming and he had been struggling with feelings of worthlessness and fear. He came in quietly, perched on the edge of a chair, bag on his back, a little uncomfortable and said, “I just don’t understand what’s going on. How can this happen? What will this mean for us, for me, for my family?”

Face strained with incomprehension his questions kept coming, tumbling out in calm confusion. There was no sense of upset, more disbelief. We talked for sometime, without answering his questions (how could there be answers) and we tried to address the idea of accepting uncertainty, grasping ambiguity. I have replayed that conversation in recent days. The exams debacle has exterminated any sense of the promise, illusion or assumption of fairness that I sought to convey to the pupils in those early days of COVID and that many have always assumed underpin our system. It has, of course, gone further than simply delivering unjust exam outcomes and damaging the prospects of tens of thousands of children. As other commentators have observed the exams crisis has eviscerated the whole system in one bloody gash, laying bare the rotten bones and frayed cartilage: inequality that is baked-in; narrow and mean assessment that excludes rather than recognises the achievements of all young people; a clear absence of trust in professionals and in children; a system that prizes a devalued currency of achievement over people. We knew all this already, we were just looking away.

A clearer case for the imaginative, pressing, transformation of our system could not be more obvious. What do we get? An appeals task force led by Nick Gibb, overseer of some of the system’s worst excesses – right answers only please Nick and in fountain pen with fronted adverbials. At least in Scotland an independent, credible academic has been appointed to lead their enquiry.

We walk alongside those we serve
Service is an act of accompaniment, of walking alongside those we serve: listening, displaying humility. Effective leaders serve others, they are not weighed down by the baggage of the past, but are instead open to the notion of transformation. This is not, in practice, hierarchical leadership, it recognises the limits of its own understanding. It respects the knowledge that others bring, it recognises that people have their own, internal resources and are not passive recipients, but co-creators, collaborators. As such it is leadership that is rooted in values, in ethics, in morality and it is exercised through communication and relationships. In education there is a special level of incompetence on display in our land at the highest level. Not just a failure to spot the problem, even when it was pointed out, but a compounding of that neglect by then electing to serve the system (on the pretext of grade inflation) rather than meet the needs of the people who should be beneficiaries of that system. Such inflexibility became manifest in the last few days in the absolute deafness to appeal, the lack of empathy for the personal distress, until a solution was forced upon our leaders. Even then this was enacted with such poor grace through such confused channels of communication that it lacked any sense of a firm conclusion. It is this approach that is the hallmark of the government’s disdain for serving the people, in this case children.

That this is their imprimatur should come as no surprise. For far too long in our school system the most marginalised, distressed and traumatised children have been those most excluded from it, often deliberately. It is a tragic absurdity that those who have the greatest need of a service are not only those who find it hardest to access, but the very group from whom the officers who provide that service can withdraw it, offering at best a poor alternative. These are the young people (and their families) who are labelled as offenders, as failures, as drains on society who should simply take charge of their lives and responsibility for their actions. That is not service, it is discrimination.

Preserving public service
Recent events have shown what a frail, denuded system we have, exposing the extent to which our national leaders lack both competence and deep personal investment in our institutions. They talk accountability, indeed insist on it from some of society’s most vulnerable, but exercise none themselves. This most recent mess is merely another symptom of the sickness. If you think that the big argument is whether or not using teacher judgment compromises the exams system then you’re having the wrong debate. You’re engaged in a mildly diverting thumb war, whilst a battle rages behind you. The issue is the preservation of an entire public service, it has been for some time. For, despite the rhetoric of improvement over the last decade or more, this government has presided over a litany of disaster.

As well as cutting funding year-by-year by stealth and accelerating a teacher retention crisis, they have confected a populist crisis of behaviour, turning inclusion from a basic right into a lottery of school ethos, allowing unacceptable practices not just to proliferate, but to be lauded; elevated shabby HR practices, brutal performance management and unethical leadership; entrenched a vicious, unstable inspection process and left an unresolved tension in national education leadership between Ofsted (where have they been since March 20th?) and the DfE that has effected a cycle of permanent, ill-wrought, incoherent change packaged as the canard of rapid improvement; ducked the complexities of young people’s mental health, choosing instead to label other pupils or weak teachers as the source of the problem; engaged in dubious contracting and tendering, if not out-right cronyism; implemented a narrow curriculum and crushing performance measures that act as perverse incentives and make a breadth of education the preserve of the elite; eroded trust and the status of education professionals, dividing the workforce and increasing stress; marginalised universities from the process of teacher education; conflated successful learning with social mobility and the personal acquisition of cultural capital, conferring judgments on communities and individuals; placed huge personal burdens on young people with SEND and their families as they struggle to secure schooling; labelled and blamed schools for all manner of ills; created pressures on good, talented people that push them out of schools, out of leadership, disillusioned and gasping for air.

In the last few months they lacked any plan on Free School Meals (and managed to avoid the wider debate about child poverty and why so many need to be claimed in the first place); blamed schools and unions for holding up re-opening when we were only following last-minute DfE advice, such as it was; failed to ensure laptops were delivered to schools for disadvantaged young people; played games with funding, announcing new money that was simply repurposed cash; failed to provide useful, informed advice for school leaders with the urgency and punctuality needed. Their communication was confused, messages sprayed like buckshot across multiple channels, tested for popularity and then withdrawn, delivered without respect for those who received them and had to turn them into action. And that’s before we look more widely at the appalling leadership of this government throughout this crisis: a crisis of public health, not education and one in which it was clear senior ministers were not even acquainted with the details of their own guidance. An executive whose strategy at some points looked simply to be government by U-turn.

A telling interface between the wider crisis and schools is the issue of PPE. I think regularly of the reaction I received when I delivered several hundred bits of PPE to local health centres and hospitals. Our staff happily spent days gathering materials and making visors, repurposing stuff that, had we been fully open, kids would have been learning with. When I turned up to drop them off, no-one in the NHS said, “Thanks, really appreciate the effort, we’ll put this in the back room with the stockpiles of other PPE we already have just in case.” No. They were desperate for anything, even protective masks made of transparent paper, sponge and plastic bands because they were serving the sick whilst wearing bin bags. I received tweets on the school account from NHS staff crying out for masks and visors. One under-funded public service helping another because the government had failed in basic procurement and planning for a pandemic for which other countries had been gearing up for years.

Hope in better: imagining it and fighting for it
In the early part of lockdown Arundhati Roy wrote a piece for the Financial Times (April 3rd) on the impact of COVID in India. It glowed with insight and anger. A section of her conclusion settled immediately in my mind and I have carried its profundity throughout this crisis, sharing it with staff in our prayer services. She wrote:

“Historically, pandemics have forced humans to break with the past and imagine their world anew. This one is no different. It is a portal, a gateway between one world and the next. We can choose to walk through it, dragging the carcasses of our prejudice and hatred, our avarice, our data banks and dead ideas, our dead rivers and smoky skies behind us. Or we can walk through lightly, with little luggage, ready to imagine another world. And ready to fight for it.”

Much of the difficulty we face now in our education system is a consequence of too much reform, not too little. However, what has been mostly absent from the processes that have informed change is a the desire to jettison ‘dead ideas’ and engage the imagination. Instead governments happily shoulder the weight of a cemetery-worth of rotten thinking. Consequently, we find that each iteration of the system as it is reimagined, transformed or renewed, closely recalls the last. Each new stratum is built on layers of sentiment, prejudice and imagined experience by those who will not listen to the professionals charged with teaching and supporting our young. We feel, daily and deeply, the absence of a clear, compelling, compassionate and bold unifying vision for children, schooling and childhood in our nation. That there isn’t one says much about the etiolated view of those who claim to lead such an important and precious aspect of our lives and futures.

It is ironic that a government that has set so much store by character education has been so hopeless in articulating qualities considered cornerstones of good character: a sense of duty, integrity and service. Horace and Cicero would have a fit. This transcends party politics, it is a question of the ethical framework and core values that inform those who have been offered the privilege of running, and hence serving, our country. It could be argued that the exams fiasco has given the lie to a key element of conservative philosophy (work hard, take responsibility, get what you deserve), frittered by a botched solution.

Ambitious for the higher gifts
Hope radiates from the service our schools give to their communities as never before. It is a hope that embodies the deep sense of service that educators invest in all of their work. It shines in the impulse that leads staff to make that PPE. Service permeates the leadership, decision-making and risk-assessment that will see schools, despite the paucity of official guidance, re-open safely for children and staff in September. It is there in the care and professionalism with which CAGs were calculated. Far from being an example of careless grade inflation, the CAGs provide a glimpse of how different assessment and exams could be, of the possibility that reform and change offers. Staff worked tirelessly to use a wide range of evidence, seeking to capture the best of each young person and translate that into a grade. It is service in action: rather than bending the child to fit the exam system, assessment serves the child. In lightening our load as we walk through the portal into the educational new world carved out by COVID, we have an precious opportunity to re-imagine the systems we use to measure learning and recognise achievement.

Hope is there too in the way staff found ways round or through seemingly huge obstacles throughout lockdown. And it is there in the hundreds of thousands of adults who make it all work, each day in schools across the country for the millions of children who embody the greatest hope of all. They walked proudly into their schools to collect results that had been subjected to the greatest media speculation in recent times, after all of the restrictions and privations of lockdown. They were met by staff who, ambitious not just for exam success but for the higher gifts, have invested more into these results than the public realise (when they are misrepresented as ‘predictions’) and these two groups celebrated together. That relationship, that fundamental interaction in our schools between adult and pupil, is a great, nourishing source of hope for change and for a better, more humane system of schooling. Those young people and their families are those we serve. We do so proudly, despite the excesses and monstrosities of our system. And we can imagine another world, as Roy says, and be ready to fight for it. That would perhaps be the greatest service of all.

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