Should we be missing school consultants?

People outside schools have also suffered as a result of school closures. This leaves teachers' lives a little poorer, says David James

David James

Consultant addresses large group of teachers

Schools may be open, but they have remained closed to many who depend on them for their livelihoods. 

Of course, a school is not only a place for teachers and students. There's also the support staff who keep them working, warm, and fed: without the photocopying office, the caretakers, secretaries, the IT and catering teams, many schools wouldn’t get to Monday morning break before coming to a sudden stop. 

These are the overlooked heroes of re-opening, and their stories remain largely untold, shut out of the national noise that has swirled around educational matters since March.

But they will have felt the brutal, prolonged Covid-induced silence as sharply as anybody, because they will, in so many cases, be as devoted to their schools as any teacher. And they, too, let’s not forget, are putting themselves at risk by returning to the jobs they love, and the students they want to see succeed. 

Coronavirus: A bonfire of careers

But schools sit at the centre of a wider web of businesses, which rely on them remaining open: the local shops that benefit from the staff and students calling in before and after (and sometimes during) lessons will have suffered from a huge loss of business. So, too, will those related industries that depend on schools for their survival: the food and office suppliers, the coach companies and taxis. 

On and outward it goes, a school’s reach invisibly deciding whether a small business stays solvent or not. Many of these will not have recovered from schools returning, because schools have not returned to what they once were. Wherever possible, contact with others – be it on a trip, or having visitors on site – is being limited to core business. Yes, schools are open, but they have, inevitably, turned inward.

And perhaps nobody has been left more adrift than the many consultants who rely on schools for much of their work. For some, such as Phil Beadle, a familiar face in schools and at educational events, it is “a bonfire of careers”. 

Other prominent names have tried to diversify, moving events online, writing books to add to the (seemingly) neverending supply of titles that come out about teaching, or even creating merchandise, like T-shirts and tote bags, for those who literally want to wear their pedagogical hearts on their sleeves (such signalling is always a hit in the staffroom). 

Others go further still, creating clubs with membership fees, a little like the Dennis the Menace Fan Club, but without the playground kudos (and furry Gnasher badges). 

Regular events, such as researchED, have responded well, with online views over lockdown reaching numbers in excess of 250,000. The market will adapt, and some will flourish, but others will die off. 

What will we lose? 

Should we be concerned if the pandemic kills off the school consultant? Many teachers will not miss them: the thought of not having to sit through hours of lectures, given by people who either have never taught, or who loved it so much they left the profession before they could test their theories on middle management, will fill them with relief. 

There is, for teachers, only one thing worse than being told how to do things better, and that’s hearing it from someone who has never done it, lived with the consequences, and explained it to parents afterwards.

And we have all experienced that spreading sense of horror that comes, 10 minutes into a CPD PowerPoint presentation, when you realise that not only was it a disastrous mistake to sit in the front row without a laptop, but that the next two hours will consist, at best, of platitudes and clichés and, at worst, of ill-founded and misleading advice. The only bright spot in the room is the fixed, rictus grin of the head of teaching and learning, who booked the consultant on the advice of Twitter. 

So, wouldn’t the end of such scarring events would be a blessing for teachers and their school budgets? And think of the time we can spend in groups, brainstorming challenges shortlisted by the ever-busy assistant heads...

Well, possibly. But for every 10 external purveyors of snake-oil solutions to problems that don’t exist, there are the speakers we do remember, who punch through our long-established patterns of behaviour, and who have the intellectual depth and experience to excite a group of jaded teachers and inspire them. 

Every teacher who is excited by the job has also experienced this, and has queued afterwards to ask more questions and, yes, buy the book (but not the tote bag). Sure, the claim by the senior leadership team that such speakers can be sourced from the staffroom is admirable (although sometimes tendentious), but the reality is that schools can stagnate, their in-house ideas can become fixed, and practices there were once fresh have a tendency – too soon if they remain unchallenged – to turn stale. 

Professional dialogue should include outside voices, because new insights are needed to question comfortable orthodoxies. 

It may be premature to claim the school consultant is dead, but if that wider web that schools have always spun remains broken, or unformed, even after the pandemic has passed, then teaching will be depleted, quieter, its stock of ideas thinned out when, more than ever, we need intellectual sustenance to get us back to strength. 

David James is deputy head of an independent school in London. He tweets as @drdavidajames

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