Any more bright ideas, then?

I was intrigued by the news that the Department for Education and Skills is setting up an innovation unit and appointing a director of it. After the avalanche of novelties engulfing schools in recent years, what on earth would be the key interview question?

"Do you now have, or have you ever had, an initiative?"


"Splendid, you're in."

It will be a challenging assignment. Life is a blend of the new and the familiar. Novelty is exciting, familiarity is reassuring, so most of us enjoy a mixture. Push the balance too far in one direction and people get upset. Endless innovation can be disorientating, but if life stays the same we become bored and complacent, nothing improves.

The word "initiative" is rooted in the Latin for "beginning". You have to keep running with the best ideas in education over a sustained period, so they take root. When Michael Barber was appointed dean of new initiatives at the London Institute, I wondered whether further appointments would be needed, such as dean of picking up yesterday's initiative and kicking the crap out of it until it works properly.

The two most mistaken assumptions in education are extreme opposites of each other. The first is the belief that any innovation is automatically a good one. The second is the conviction that new ideas are a criticism of current practice.

Judicious selection of what to change, and what to leave alone, has become one of the greatest skills in managing education during a period of rapid transformation.

Anyone who wants innovations to take root must understand the nature of teaching itself. Every single day teachers engage in hundreds of interactions with their pupils. Since many of the decisions that underlie these rapid-fire exchanges have to be made in one second or less, life would be impossible without regular working habits. Deeply ingrained ways of teaching can only be changed for the better if teachers feel some sense of ownership.

I wrote a few years ago about killer tactics that people use towards new ideas if they feel they are being forced on them. One favourite is to disparage any new idea by making it look dated: "We tried that in 1981, 1987, again in 1993, I think. Yes, it worked quite well in 1993... " Another disabling ploy is to suggest the timing is not right: "A bit too late for that now, isn't it?" This strategy is even cleverer when the person actually appears to praise the idea. Suggesting it is ahead of its time blows the scheme into a myriad pieces while making it sound as if the proposer is being hailed as a genius.

One of the most serious strategic errors of recent years has been to drown schools in externally-imposed innovations which appear to have been devised hundreds of miles away by some pale-faced, unrooted policy wonk in an attic, as relevant to daily life in a particular classroom as decreeing that every child trains as a snow shoveller.

Just imagine being appointed as the Government's head of innovation, large salary notwithstanding. It cannot be easy running an army of novelty inventors who emerge occasionally from deep underground bunkers, blinking in the sunlight.

"Come in, Jenkins. Now I want to talk to you about your 2002 innovation targets. I'm afraid you're falling a bit short of what we expect."

"A bit short, sir? What about that idea I sent you yesterday?"

"Let me see, wasn't that the plan to make teachers stand on their head when teaching about Australia? A little bizarre, I thought."

"It's empathy, sir. That's a very 'in' word nowadays in progressive education."

"Progressive, Jenkins? We're talking about government initiatives here. Why haven't you been working on the suggestions that came out of last week's brainstorming meeting? The Government is very keen on them."

"I tried, sir, but my heart wasn't really in it. I mean, take your suggestion that children who play truant should be sold into slavery. It did seem a bit, well, backward."

"Nonsense, Jenkins. We've got to take tough action. Sticking a few mothers in jail is much too flabby. This initiative will solve the truancy problem and provide much-needed funds for education."

"And I wasn't too keen on your other idea about training people to use advanced caning techniques like the backhand flick and the forehand smash. I thought corporal punishment was banned by the European court, so it seems very unfair on the children."

"Children, Jenkins? Who said anything about caning children? It's the teachers I'm talking about."

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