Politicians want, so they tell us, to make our schools the best in the world. This should be inspiring but somehow it has descended into a day on day drip feed of criticism and reform proposals that create the impression that schools are in crisis. I suspect that politicians haven’t a clue what to do about education. Every school is different so standardised approaches whether it is lesson planning, the use of text books or getting teachers to swear an oath of allegiance falls wide of the mark.
Every brilliant school is special because it is attentive to the needs of its students, their families and the community. In order to achieve the best for students a really great school must value and support its teachers rather than cannibalising them through overwork. Some of what works can be shared more widely with other schools but in doing so it will be transformed by the next school and emerge as a better fit for them. We need to remember the basic rule about effective motivation: the impetus for excellence comes from within. That doesn’t mean that schools don’t need to be accountable but maybe we need to listen more and create that appreciative atmosphere that leads to innovation and development. I’m not convinced that either Ofsted or governing bodies provide that catalyst. Instead they create systems that are more like accountants who want to drill down into the data rather than look at the larger picture.
I’m an educational psychologist and when I first trained our approach to working with schools over 30 years ago was very different to what happens now. Psychologists, back in the day, were experts who were called upon to tell people things they didn’t know. Children were referred for assessment and following testing we reported results and made recommendations to schools so they could follow a new prescribed route. It was obvious to me from the start that this model was somewhat flawed. While this approach to professional practice might work in medicine or law where facts are facts (well mostly) and where the client genuinely doesn’t know the subject under scrutiny. This so doesn’t work in bringing psychology into schools. The reality is that each person who knows a particular child holds part of the picture. Finding the solution requires working together. The thinking behind this approach is that both gaining the full knowledge of the situation and finding a solution are more likely when key players are actively involved who have a stake in the future.
I can see a parallel with the dilemma currently facing politicians. They are forced to play the expert although in their case nothing qualifies them for this role. This attempt to appear expert is doomed by second hand knowledge gained from advisors who at best are at arm’s length from the problem and increasingly may have no knowledge of schools other than they went to one. I accept that we can’t expect politicians not to scrutinise the value for money of investment in education but they really do need to create a system that works actively with schools to inspire and inform innovation. Ofsted was never designed for this and academisation is creating a silo effect rather than a collaborative process. There needs to be a balance between leaving schools alone and inspection systems that evaluate but don’t support.
So my plea to politicians in all parties is this. Learn to listen. Find out what works but don’t try to impose a standardised package for a diverse society. Find the gaps and the barriers which are undermining progress but encourage innovation from within. Help schools to thin out the practices which over work teachers so that time can be used productively. And lastly don’t even think about a RSC team of super teachers who can be parachuted in to turn schools around, that’s just another tired proposal based on the expert model. Believe me it won’t work.