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Beware the bandits

Consultants are a wild bunch. I admire their courage and their perspicacity, as they wander like minstrels, being wise for hire. (I've done some consultancy in my time, so I include myself in this category.) If you've worked in any public sector school, you'll be familiar with the breed, happily running twilight training, handing out pens and sugar paper and inviting you to "capture your thoughts" on Post-it notes that will never be seen again.

Some consultants are worth every penny; others are like witch doctors handing out cards for spells. I'd suggest that when the public purse is being pawed at, schools should check their pockets aren't being picked.

I've known consultants who could reliably jump-start a graveyard into achieving five A*-Cs. Some have taught me to see the world in a new way or filled a skills gap I never even knew I had.

Then there are the pirates: the techno-jocks and charming entrepreneurs of optimism and futurism; those who once read a copy of New Scientist magazine and got excited about neuroscience; those who still run on the ancient grooves of learning styles and leftright brain moronisms, absurdly imagining themselves to be cutting edge.

I don't blame these people for trying to make a living. But for the sake of our children, budgets and sanity, schools need to be discerning customers. I hear stories every week from teachers bludgeoned by wellmeaning senior staff into attending training sessions run by people and organisations who could charitably be described as shamanic.

Why has this become the case? Obviously, because schools feel they have a deficit of wisdom that can't be filled without sending out a bat-signal for someone to come and rescue them. This tells us three things about the ecosystem of a school. One, we don't always have all the answers within our walls. Two, we don't always have strong enough relationships with other schools to obtain that wisdom. Three, we have a budget and a problem. So if we find an advert saying "I solve your problem for $$$", the thought of signing a cheque is very attractive. But consultants are like wild flowers: some are water lilies and some are weeds.

One of the main difficulties is regulation: there isn't any. Anyone can be a consultant. Expertise is instantly invented - all you need is a testimonial or two and a list of clients. Consultancy is the Wild West; anyone with a badge can claim to be a sheriff. Since schools need assistance all the time, there will always be a need for imported talent. But until someone stamps a Kitemark on consultants' foreheads, schools are going to have to be the gatekeepers of best practice.

Ask if their claims of efficacy are cautious or extravagant. Ask to speak to previous, satisfied clients. And ask if what they're selling is really what you need, instead of something that will score points with the inspectorate. Best of all, ask yourself: "What if I were spending my own money?" That usually helps to sharpen a few minds.

Tom Bennett is a secondary teacher in East London, director of the ResearchED conference and the government's new school behaviour expert

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