‘Non-negotiables’ drag us down, without question
There are a few words or phrases that seem to take on a life of their own in schools. Indeed, there are some which are virtually unheard of outside education. Search the internet for “Miptor” or “non-chronological report”, and you’re guaranteed to find pages of links to school websites. The same has become true of “non-negotiables” – and to make matters worse, they seem to apply to adults as much as to children.
My issues with non-negotiables are plentiful. Firstly, near enough everything in life is negotiable – even one of those two famous certainties of death and taxes doesn’t seem quite as clear-cut as it once was.
Secondly, non-negotiable outcomes need to be achievable, and consequences need to be available where they are not met. If a company sets a non-negotiable target for sales and one of its employees fails to meet that, they presumably cease to be an employee. The same cannot be true of a Year 4 pupil who fails to learn their 12-times table. As soon as we make an exception to the rule, we concede to negotiation. The phrase is a nonsense.
But it is the third and final issue that concerns me the most. Non-negotiables are – inevitably – a marker of minimum expectations. They set a low threshold across which all must step. They focus on the lowest common denominator, supposedly to weed out underperformance. But just like with the “must, should, could” of success criteria, there are plenty of people in our schools – pupils and staff – who are more than happy to settle for the minimum requirements if that’s what keeps the wolf from the door. And if all our energies are focused on the minimum expectations, then at what point do we reach higher standards?
"Using 'non-negotiables' to tackle poor performance is a weakness of leadership"
This is brought home to me frequently at the moment when I talk to schools – and especially school leaders – about reducing workload. I speak loudly and often about the need to replace burdensome marking policies with sensible approaches to feedback, or replacing lengthy templates with measured approaches to planning. Too often, heads and senior leaders tell me that they would love to make some changes, but they have one or two teachers who would use the freedom to shirk.
The implication is that if there isn’t a strict marking policy that sets out how many pieces of work must be marked, then some teachers may never bother even to look at work. That if teachers are not compelled to submit detailed plans a week in advance, then they may not plan at all.
Doubtless there is some truth behind this. But choosing a blunt tool such as “non-negotiables” to tackle such poor performance is both a weakness of leadership and a barrier to excellence for those teachers who work day-in, day-out to achieve their best for their students. For every poor teacher who will use the loophole, there are many, many more who are weighed down by rules which prevent them from providing even better feedback, or planning even better lessons.
If, as a school leader, you have teachers who you think are not performing well, then the solution is not to box everybody in with simplistic rules which are easily scrutinised. Indeed, perhaps the best thing you can do is to provide the freedom for every teacher to succeed or fail on their own merits. Only then can you really tackle the underperformance for what it is, and put things in place to improve it.
If you’re relying on lists of minimum requirements to raise expectations in your school, then be aware that you’re raising them only to the minimum threshold. And those who want to achieve more, may well look elsewhere to find that freedom.
Michael Tidd is deputy head at Edgewood Primary School in Nottinghamshire @MichaelT1979