Are we turning teachers into Starbucks baristas?

Increasingly, teachers are being judged on the consumer experience. But is that really the purpose of education, asks Fiona Birkbeck

Fiona Birkbeck

Used, empty Starbucks cups

As you swing out of Starbucks, holding aloft your flat white with your name scribbled on the cup, stand on the pavement for a moment and consider this: in the age of customer feedback, whether you are an A-level maths teacher or a Starbucks barista, you are to be judged by the quality not just of the service you deliver, but also of “the experience” of the service you have offered your client.

Feedback may be a comment on Ofsted Parent View, or it may be a postcard taken from a rack on a coffee table. But, in both these cases, what the client has to say will go towards determining your funding. Your employers, whether they are an academy trust or a coffee chain, will weigh up your efficacy partly by the experience you have staged for the client. Welcome to the experience economy. 

Learning is an experience. Being in a classroom offers some of the most important experiences in our lives. But the business model seems to have taken over “experiences”, tweaked them to make more profit – and then fed the concept back into education as a way of enhancing ratings. 

Transforming our lives, one lesson at a time

Starbucks teases us with the possibility of transforming our lives, even temporarily, with “teavana” or the “unicorn frappuccino”. Its advertising speaks of “inspiration”, of “the community of coffee”, of transformation happening “one cup at a time”.

Choose at random any academy mission statement, and you’ll find strangely similar language: talk of “inspiration”, “opportunity”, “growth”. 

But an academy mission statement is not just a cynical marketing ploy. It is a statement of intent, difficult to achieve, but attempted every day. Being a teacher means wanting to meet the real needs of a pupil; to educate is to offer real transformation. To change a child’s life. Yes, that statement should send a shiver down the spine. We are not pedalling a temporary fix in our classrooms, but real change.

Effective, truthful feedback is essential to the delivery of good teaching, both for the teachers and the pupils. It creates opportunities, it supports excellence. However, with the insidious creep of business practice into public services, an emphasis on positive customer feedback has come not to support, but to dominate the practice of teaching. 

Chasing the ratings

Both our education system and workplace are focused on “performativity” – a term used by Stephen Ball, professor of the sociology of education at the UCL Institute of Education, to describe the effect on teaching of the policymakers’ obsession with statistics, grades, and goals. Ratings, some of which depend on client perception, have become central to the practice of education. 

Performativity emphasises data, but it also skews the daily practice of those being measured. Control by ratings forcibly translates the objectives of one party (in this case, the profession of teaching) into terms acceptable to others (the business-compliant state), to such an extent that certain norms, such as service, altruism and honest appraisal may be supplanted by others, such as competition and financial rationalisation. 

Chasing the ratings rather than enacting real change sets up a form of cognitive dissonance within the expert practitioner. Social psychologist Leon Festinger tells us that when someone is forced to do (publicly) something they (privately) really don't want to do, dissonance is created between their cognition (I didn't want to do this) and their behaviour (I am doing it). 

Forced compliance occurs when an individual performs an action that is inconsistent with his or her beliefs. If you are a barista in Starbucks and you don’t quite buy into the ethos, you can drop it off with the uniform when you get home. 

Geert Kelchtermans, professor of education at the Belgian University of Leuven, writes that, more than any other profession, apart from medicine, teachers’ actions reflect emotional involvement and moral judgement, and that their emotional reactions to their work are intimately connected to the view they have of themselves and others. They can’t shrug it off when they get home. 

Seeking to transform lives

Being taught – learning – is an “experience”. But a teacher, unlike a high-street merchant, is not staging an experience to captivate the customer. A teacher is seeking to transform lives, to satisfy real needs. The fundamental ethos of education, as with healing, is that it is truly transformational. 

These are the words of an academy head: “I’ve got a student here, a tough kid. She told me she was the worst kid in the school – her grades were shocking – and her behavior was worse. In the end, every day she spent the breaks with me and a support teacher. She came in on results day, all her grades were grade C and above, and she sobbed. It doesn’t happen every day…but we go looking for it – don’t we?”

Teaching is about is the one-to-one moment of discovery and transformation, which happens when thoughtfully applied knowledge or skill changes the life of the recipient. 

These are reciprocal moments: they are transformational for the teacher as well as for the student. They are what we go hunting for – and, if we let them be turned into marketing opportunities, then our recruitment and retention crisis will never be solved. 

Fiona Birkbeck is a teacher of A-level psychology, at a school in Derbyshire. She has recently completed doctoral research in the department of education at the University of Nottingham

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