'Too often, schools are told how to improve by people with no experience of what teachers really do'

11th February 2016 at 16:34
A listening mindset is not something I’ve encountered often among those most keen on school reform, writes one educational consultant. Quite the opposite

My most recent article for TES about schools and business received so much support that it got me thinking even more deeply about the underlying issues. I know that many senior executives in business are force-fed from a five-star menu of problems while on a crash diet of solutions. I’m sure some policymakers and senior figures charged with delivering school improvement feel the same way. But to find – never mind adopt – a solution, you need to listen. Unfortunately, as I suggested in my earlier piece, a listening mindset is not something that I’ve encountered often among those most keen on school reform. Quite the opposite is true.

When reformers, businesses, and other organisations taking on improving schools, they should be finely tuned to the voices of professional teachers, but are instead occupied writing “white papers” or “thought leadership” pieces assertively telling teachers and schools what they should be doing.

Part of me is just itching to illustrate this, not least because the field is bursting with rich pickings. They usually start with a perky, starry eyed 14-year-old, counting quarks with 3D specs or curing cancer on her phablet. But for a professional literary critic, this particular goal isn’t just open, the entire team and fans have gone home and are sitting in front of the TV with a Horlicks watching the highlights.

The infantilisation of teaching

Instead, I want to reflect on why this happens. The reason has a lot to do with the differences between schools and businesses. What is it that nurtures this invidious idea that schools and teachers need to be told what to do all the time, especially by people with no or minimal experience of what schools and teachers really do? How have we reached a situation where charities, NGOs and businesses display such a degree of confidence that they feel empowered to instruct an entire profession? 

Business and commerce thrive on innovation, especially technological. Consumers like new things. The market and the traders and investors whose livelihoods depend on it understand this. But where is it written in stone that schools are the same? Since when did we come to believe that educating our children requires us to constantly innovate? If education is like other markets, then why do so many of the world’s wealthiest consumers send their children to some of the most traditional, conservative and stable schools to be found anywhere in the world: the UK’s independent schools? I would argue that it is precisely their longevity, their stability and their confidence in their systems that attracts so many of these particular customers.

Yet I read pieces almost weekly that assert the opposite, that innovators are the kickstarters, the engines of educational success and improvement. I read that school improvement globally depends on innovation at every level, from individual classrooms to whole-school systems. My experience has taught me something completely different and I wonder how many teachers reading this will agree.

Self-interest and serial innovators

The educational landscape that I have worked in all my career has been plagued by innovators, who move straight on to better jobs – frequently in the private sector – the moment that the contract they have been driving is awarded, purely so that they can further their career. They leave real teachers, who then have to try and deliver the project that the innovator initiated. Innovation in education is, more often than not, shorthand for career advancement. And it is especially pernicious when those advocating innovation do so in the name of the underprivileged.

The wider school-reform movement is peppered with serial innovators; people who don’t just come up with an idea, but also have the skills as self-publicists to convince others that their particular box of Acme school improvement tools will work. In many cases, they are even astute enough to convince other teachers, who one would hope had sufficient confidence and integrity to expose the selfishness, short-termism and the inevitably messy outcome of buying anything from Acme.

Until more people involved at the highest levels in school reform appreciate that innovation in education is frequently thinly disguised rhetoric for self-interest, the problem will persist.

So what is my solution? What recipe for success have I got to offer those chronically hungry individuals besieged with problems, yet nonetheless charged with improving the situation? Well apart from, ironically, cultivating that quintessential salesman’s skill of genuinely listening to the real customer (not just the monkey holding the pursestrings), what I would advise is that time invested in a much more rigorous scrutiny of anything new, any innovative educational proposal, is not just well spent, but is a social, as well as a professional, responsibility.   

Joe Nutt is an educational consultant and author

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