Why I retired early

This will probably get read by three people, provided I count myself, so I’m posting it so I don’t forget. I’ll start with my experience of working in education through a few episodes. 

Phil Gibson using an adze,  some of you are asking what’s special about that? Others what’s an adze? In my experience the latter outweighs the former by a significant factor. When I started teaching at Leeds in nineteen ninety something Phil was my first line manager and he was effectively forced out of FE through incorporation, he was expensive and had an attitude to craft that eschewed targets. After he left he worked for a while on historic renovations, Phil was a designer furniture maker who had built his own house, and the job stopped when he used an adze to match new sections of beams to the sound parts of existing beams. All the other trades came to see an adze being used. 

Some years later I ran my own course at Leeds. The idea was to run a design foundation course, like a traditional FAD but with a focus on the practical over the conceptual. The other USP was that entry was post A Level but no previous art experience was required. What I felt, and still feel, is that education is a space where we teach people how to learn and let them loose on particular knowledge. Teaching in this scenario is about the environment you promote rather than the knowledge you dispense. The course started with 18 students, went to 48 then to 112 in three years, then settled back to 60 and I left to do an MA. A year later it closed. In the years I ran it we were inspected by Ofsted and slammed as our inspector had no idea what we were trying to do or why and no amount of explanation would enlighten him.

In the last few years as a manager I’ve juggled the pursuit of financial efficiency with retaining a skilled body of staff against a backdrop of government cuts, an agenda to ‘vocationalise’ arts and culture out of education into training and a pernicious limiting of people’s ability to extend themselves. My attitude of putting students first has led to my being criticised for overspending in every one of four years worth of quarterly performance reviews, through my spending too much on staff. I do not see myself as any kind of martyr regarding this, it’s simply fact. At the same time our Ofsted metrics were amongst the best in the country, more than 90% of our students achieved and progressed from a strongly working class area. I should add that the department became cheaper, but not more financially efficient, each year.

What led to my despair was the constant refrain of austerity, the refusal to view this a choice we make, the insensitivity to reality that measures hairdressing against catering against sculpture against business studies. I lost sleep worrying about whether to sacrifice the students experience by streamlining the staffing. So which skills I can lose as no longer fit for purpose, which resources I should dispose of, or whether I should scrap particular courses thus limiting the students opportunities. Eventually it wears you down, but this relentless pressure to reduce the cost of everything has been going on for all of my career.  What exacerbated it for me was the fact that for the last five years or so the opportunities available at school in Creative subjects have been cut back to such a degree that fewer of students each year have been choosing to follow these subjects in what used to be post compulsory education. 

In education at any level these days students are money, fewer students equals less money equals greater need for efficiency equals fewer choices to offer them, and repeat.

Alongside all of this has been the joy of learning alongside people who want to learn. Gradually they have become less prepared for the experience, less able to understand the act of learning, particularly how practical work translates into intellectual stimulus and progress and the sheer amount of physical and mental work required for that to happen. Increasingly students have an education that requires them to respond, so they await instructions and can carry them out diligently but cannot, in the main, make decisions for themselves – all but the best have had that knocked out of them (or have never had it developed into them). So it takes longer and longer to break down barriers to learning that are ingrained and for students to contribute effectively to their own and their peers learning. It meant that I had some staff whose horizons were limited to a narrow specialism rather than to a broad understanding – the idea that any art tutor could not teach drawing would have been anathema when I started – and who lacked the personal resource to develop when one of the, admittedly few, development opportunities arose.

So that’s why I took early retirement, which I can’t really afford, to find a way to reengage with the joy of working with people towards a common goal and to find ways to address the way the systems we run are denying opportunities for people to have the life that I have.

Oh, and also because I could!

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